All eyes were on Cormeilles-en-Vexin airfield in France today (Thursday), as it was officially launched as Europe’s first testbed for Advanced Air Mobility. 

Located in Pontoise to the north-west of Paris, the site has been home to Volocopter as it continues testing its full-scale 2X eVTOL prototype. 

Alongside its partners Skyports, Choose Paris Region, île de France, Group ADP and Groupe RATP, the European vertiport testbed will serve as a real-world testing facility to be fully integrated into an operational aeronautical setting. 

Live eVTOL test flights integrated with manned conventional traffic, weather permitting, will complete the showcase to demonstrate the readiness of future electric urban air travel. This event was also an opportunity to reflect on this year’s testing campaigns and share upcoming milestones.

eVTOL Insights spoke exclusively to Duncan Walker, CEO at Skyports, and Christian Bauer, Chief Commercial Officer at Volocopter, earlier this week ahead of the launch. The pair talked about the significance of this testbed for the industry, the importance of the companies within the partnership and what the main objectives will be in the years to come.

eVTOL Insights: Could you start off by giving us a bit of background to this project ahead of this week’s launch?

Christian Bauer: “For me, it’s really a puzzle that is now forming piece by piece. ADP and RATP started in about 2019 when they were thinking about Urban Air Mobility. We met the ADP team in 2020 to work together on bringing urban air mobility to the Paris region and to also be part of the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. 

The mayor of Pontoise was there and we showed our VoloCity mockup for the first time in 2021. We conducted the first test flights that year and also performed tests for public acceptance and noise. And now the other missing piece of the puzzle was Skyports, which bought its vertiport So, piece by piece, we are trying to complete the puzzle and have the full operations – from the vehicle, to the aircraft booking, to the vertiport. 

“At Volocopter, we’re very open to having an agnostic model with other parties joining us. So it’s not just us, but also a testbed for others to test smaller or heavier drones. That’s why this testbed is so important.”

Duncan Walker: “We’ve been working closely with Volocopter all the way back in 2019, when we built our first vertiport out in Singapore and Volocopter flew around Marina Bay, which was actually quite seminal looking back on it for the Advanced Air Mobility industry. It was the first time anybody had done it anywhere; it had built a vertiport and flown in a dense urban environment. 

“That set us largely on this journey and Groupe ADP invested into Skyports in 2019 to become one of our shareholders. The company has years of aviation experience and land thousands of aircraft a day, but it’s entering a new industry with Skyports and Volocopter and trying to understand the impact of what these types of aircraft have on existing aviation infrastructure.

“We’re talking to ADP about various things, including Singapore and what that looks like for Europe. One of the particular challenges we’re excited about for this project is doing an airside out of a live airfield; clearly these vehicles have got to integrate with manned aviation, future unmanned aviation and doing this in a live airport environment in Europe is super important for certification and our businesses.

“As Christian said, this is about bringing in all sorts of different technology and really starting to understand from a customer’s perspective, tech integration perspective, airspace managers and regulators: how do we bring all those bits together?”

eVTOL Insights: How significant will this testbed be for the industry and for Europe as a potential launch market?

DW: ‘There is no substitute for doing real-life operations. It really allows people to understand, feel and see it. That’s been an incremental journey and it’s amazing to see people’s feedback – whether they’re sort of technical, regulators or the general public. You ask someone what they think about it [Advanced Air Mobility] beforehand and they are maybe conservative and say they’re not too sure about it, I don’t understand or don’t know about it. 

“If you let them see it, feel it and experience it, then everybody changes and says this is fantastic, exciting and quiet. They can see how this industry can impact their life in a positive way. The significance of this is having that base in Europe where we can take regulators, investors, schoolchildren and the general public. All of these important stakeholder groups. 

“We can share as many nice PowerPoint presentations as we want, but until you’ve seen it happen, you really can’t convince anyone.”

CB: “We’re seeing a European mindset in that different countries and different regions are working together and creating standards together with EASA on vertiports, airspace and the eVTOL aircraft. I think it’s also very important that it’s not just about public perception, but also the political sphere and creating an ecosystem of new companies such as suppliers.

“What makes this more exciting is that Pontoise will be a permanent site where people can go and test and later on, you will have the operations in downtown Paris.

“No-one can do this alone; this is an ecosystem effort. This is only going to work if we’re all working hand-in-hand and this is what the testbed enables.”

eVTOL Insights: Is there any update on the Volocopter’s work to be flying at the Paris Olympics in 2024, Christian? 

CB: “I can only tell you that our whole company is working towards that goal. When you see and watch the industry very closely, everybody talks about the issues. We are very confident to go down this route – we have a fixed timeline agreement with our partners. 

“It’s ambitious but we can make it together if we are laser focused on that. The next steps for us in 2023 is testing against the requirements set by EASA and getting the VoloCity from the test programme to the highest safety level. We have to really focus on the time and execution.”

eVTOL Insights: Can you tell us more about the important work other partners in this project are doing, such as île de France, Choose Paris Region, Groupe ADP and Groupe RATP?

DW: “What’s nice about working with Groupe ADP is that it has huge political capital and in all of the airports around Paris. It is also a half state-owned entity and they corral quite a lot of the senior political figures around this project. RATP is the biggest transportation provider in Paris Central and a huge multimodal entity; a core part of everybody’s value proposition is how to connect the first and last piece of the journey and the VoloPort will be an important part of that.

“If you’ve got to get off a vertiport and walk half a mile to the tram stop, it’s not a viable service. 

We’re going to have gate biometrics there and that’s really interesting from our perspective and also Volocopter because it’s a point of integration. How do you work out the customer booking through Volocopter’s app through to the vertiport and doing the security processing to get them out the other side so they can continue their journey?”

CB: “Choose Paris Region is an agency from the government which will support the creation of new business, jobs and so on. They were very helpful when it came to contributing to the sandbox; whether we needed officers on the ground or support on a government level to make the right connections. ADP owns all aero drones around the Paris region, so if we wanted to connect certain sites, it is the one controlling that. The company also has a good relationship with the air traffic controller. You know where you start and land, but what is the flight route, what will it look like and how is it deemed safe.

“It seems you can draw a simple line, but it’s not like that. That’s why we’re very happy to have them on board. For LATP, it’s more for the visionary when the service is there. It is a public transport provider and knows how to integrate people into this service or bring them somewhere else. The company has a big platform competency in energy management, with the huge bus portfolios and that is an interesting part which will kick in when this testbed is live. Meanwhile, we will also have the first suppliers coming into this consortium and they might be interested in maintenance operations and so on. So you see, the industry is forming step-by-step here at Pontoise.”

eVTOL Insights: What kind of lessons are you hoping to learn from this testbed, or do you have any set objectives that you’d like to achieve over the next couple of years? It’d be great to get an idea of what the roadmap looks like.

DW: “The really important thing about this process is launching and everyone gets engaged, Volocopter starts flying; all exciting stuff. But for us, this is not about the next three or four days, but about the next two years up to permanent operations.

“This testbed gives us a platform to get through loads of operational testing and interfaces. We can trial all sorts of different technologies here and things that you don’t want to be doing in public on day one, like practicing an aborted landing, aborted take-off, what happens if you’ve got an aircraft that has broken down on the FATO [Final Approach Take-Off] area and how do you reconfigure the traffic around it. 

“So from an operational and safety critical point, it gives us an environment that is semi-live. It’s an active airfield, but it is very well managed. We’ve got space, time and the ability to work out how to drive operational efficiency, process passengers through the vertiport and get them onto the vehicle quickly. 

“How do we make sure passengers don’t trip over the charge cables and battery swapping units – all of these kinds of things. So for us it’s about that journey right up to day one operations. There’ll be a long sequence of testing and integration which is both human factors, vehicle to infrastructure integration; what happens if you get a power cut at the vertiport and you’ve got people landing? 

“Do you stop the landing sequence or do you take the aircraft on a different route? If there’s a software glitch and we don’t know if we have gate availability? All of these things happen in aviation and have happened for years and in a safety critical environment, you’ve got to get through all of those procedures to work it out.

“How do you get a VoloCity which is rotored, followed by a Pipistrel electric aircraft which is following a very different flight trajectory and travelling at a different speed? It’s super exciting and a really interesting programme of testing that is accessible by everybody.

CB: “One important thing we always underestimate is people. We have built up a really great relationship with our collaboration partners and Skyports, but also with the people from ADP that control the air traffic control towers and who will be fundamental for operations. You have that working mode already, people know each other and you can quickly achieve the things that need to be done in the next two years.

“In the beginning it was all about creating awareness. Companies are now coming to us and asking if they can join the testbed which were maybe not so sure in the first instance. But because of the positive feedback from the media and our successful noise test campaign, it was also a moment of truth. We want to learn as much as we can.”

eVTOL Insights: What makes Pontoise a good location for this testbed? 

CB: “It’s always good in general when you can do tests at an airport and very easily book slots to fly and test. We have flown at busy airports like Helsinki, where you can have a just five-minute slot to test. This is very important, and so is the location. You can drive to Pontoise and park, which is not always so easy, and it’s secured and safe.

“On the smaller airports, there isn’t as much ring fencing so you can have problems with people walking close to the test site. You need officials standing and watching, which costs more. When you have an up and running environment, and support from the government and city who say ‘please use it’, then this is great.  

“It’s also valuable to have the infrastructure there when you start to have operations going into towns, because you can store lots of things there that you would not do on the day-to-day operations side.”

DW: “We don’t really want lots of testbeds, but more loads of active vertiports which will be a driver of the industry. As Christian said, it’s quite good to consolidate testing around these environments because you can bring all the technology and get everybody there to do similar things at the same time.

“We have a test facility in the US, we now have one in Europe which is great as well as our heliport in London. We don’t want to replicate these things because it dilutes the learning; what you really want is all of the people in the same place at the same time, having that dense hub of skillset. It’s an easy lift to test whatever you want on that day, without having to drag everybody from hundreds of miles away. 

“I don’t see loads more testbeds in Europe, but what’s exciting about Pontoise is that it is the European hub now for this integrated testing. Hopefully that could be translated across lots of environments.”

eVTOL Insights: I’d love to get your thoughts on the importance government officials and political figures have on implementing Advanced Air Mobility in regions, especially as the French minister for Transportation, Clement Breune, is expected to be in attendance this week.

DW: ‘It’s super important to get that high level political leadership. When we are looking at large markets anywhere in the world, one of the absolute key criteria is exactly this. If you don’t have that sponsor on your side, it becomes an incredibly heavy lift to make anything happen.

“If you look at Singapore, we were lucky in that we got very senior buying from lots of different aspects of government, which is well managed. That’s fantastic because it can align a lot of the various parts of the industry to come together. That’s why that political leadership is so important. If you don’t have that, you really are having to work very hard to get any traction.

“Senior ministers and politicians care about what the impact of this technology will have on their region, so it’s a great habit for them to see it in their own backyard and get a bit of momentum behind it.”

CB: “This has always been our theme. Before we go into any country or region, we always speak with the minister of transport or aviation. Without that, you don’t have the familiarisation of the entities and you know it’s not ready. The previous minister of transport sat in our mockup of the VoloCity, so we hope this new minister will have a good feeling about this new industry and believe that it can bring value to the country.”

eVTOL Insights: Any final thoughts you like to add?

DW: “I think this is the most tech-enabled piece of ground infrastructure we’ve ever built; in the helicopter and eVTOL world, it’s as tech-enabled as it comes. What’s really exciting is probably something you can’t see, as we’re integrating VoloIQ and the ground stuff which is great.

“You can see the infrastructure and the aircraft flying around, but for this industry to be scalable and cost effective, there’s got to be a lot that is automated. We’ll be doing that initial testing and integration, which sets the pathway for a whole heap of stuff like autonomy and scaled operations, on-demand operations. These kinds of things are going to be integral and super important for the effectiveness of this industry.”

CB: “We’re now getting close to the complete step-by-step journey of the customer. Everybody could say you need a helipad, building and aircraft, now go. But when you go to cities, everybody asks ‘how do I do it and what do I have to do?’

“Like Duncan said, these things are hidden and we don’t know yet, but the guidelines have to be written after the first test. I’m really looking forward to sitting in a vertiport building, and seeing if we can build something better for the future.”