Droids, exoskeletons, and air taxis are some of the trends and concepts highlighted at this year's VivaTech in Paris. The event aims to make France a rendezvous point for startups and technology sector leaders.
You know we're making progress on mobility when a man is casually followed around by a cargo droid in a crowded conference, a wheelchair-bound woman can stand up and take some faltering steps with a robotic machine around her waist, and the world's fastest man launches a new microcar.
Moving ourselves around, moving our stuff around, and making machines that move around on their own have been some of the great technological challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Looking around the hall at Porte De Versailles it seems we are finally getting quite good at it.
Bolt's city car
Let's start with the world's fastest man and his plans to change city mobility. US firm Bolt, together with its ambassador, athletics champion Usain Bolt, chose Paris to unveil its new B-Nano, a two-seater electric car made for short city sprints.
The vehicle is small and narrow, with riders sitting behind each other, and is meant for trips of 3 to 20 kilometres on crowded streets. The unique innovation is it uses swappable batteries, meaning that Bolt staff can swap out the old ones wherever the car is left parked.
The company also officially launched its distinctive yellow and black Bolt electric scooters in Paris. Ironically it comes just as the French capital, and other cities in the country, work to restrict their usage or ban them from the pavements altogether.
Carrying your bags
Robots using robust autonomous vehicle technology are now being deployed in earnest to carry goods and equipment in city streets. Here at VivaTech, the TwinswHeel family of collaborative droids made in France are dotted around the showfloor. This year they will be extensively tested in Paris, Toulouse and Montpellier, with several dozen devices running over the coming months.
In one test, a supermarket in Paris will have the droid offer to carry shopping for the elderly, while in Montpellier another will be used for parcel delivery between businesses in the city centre.
A French energy firm is also testing them to carry tools and equipment for engineers. With a capacity of 120 kilogrammes, they can take the load off anyone's back.
The rise of the exoskeleton
Robotic exoskeletons have been around for a while, but have often been unwieldy and unreliable. Advances on display at VivaTech show that's no longer the case, as many people looked on in wonder as wheelchair-bound former trapeze artist Silke Pan stood up and stepped forwards while wearing the prototype system from Swiss firm Twiice, backed by EPFL university.
Then, everyone held their breath as Silke lifted her crutches high and stood freely on her two exoskeleton-supported feet. A feat that even she, a seasoned circus performer, admitted required a huge amount of concentration.
With a weight of 16 kilogrammes, battery life of three hours and modular construction to make it adapt to different disabilities and body shapes, it clearly has the potential to improve many lives.
Taxis in the skies
The age of the flying car, passenger drone and electric flying taxi, is coming. German firm Lilium chose VivaTech to show the first flight of their 'air taxi', a device that defies easy definition. The Munich startup's machine has 36 electric fans on its nose and in the rear wings, and seating for five. Although they are yet to be certified, they talk of developing a network of on-demand flying machines swooping around cities to ferry passengers to their destinations high above the jams. So, it's like a helicopter, but smaller, quieter, and eventually, cheaper.
Meanwhile, Airbus and RATP, the company that runs the Paris metro and mass transit systems around the world, announced they were planning to study the viability of adding flying vehicles to the transport options the Paris commuter can enjoy. Both firms seem convinced it's more a matter of getting the right regulations in place than developing the technology, which has advanced rapidly thanks to autonomous driving systems for cars.
The cloud on wheels
Finally, there was also mobility innovation on display from possibly the oldest company at VivaTech, Citroën, which is celebrating its centenary this year.
The firm was showcasing the Ami One concept first launched at the Geneva Motor Show, which is designed to be cheap to fix and run and doesn't require a licence to drive. It also unveiled the 19_19 concept, a kind of living room on wheels with electric power and claimed autonomy of 800 kilometres. Where so many electric vehicles are marketed at city dwellers, the 19_19 would be more for the family setting off on their 'grandes vacances' for the month of August.
The firm's chief designer said the original sketch for the 19_19 was a 'cloud on wheels'. The reality is a kind of futuristic beach buggy with laid back seats, autonomous drive and lidar towers on the roof to scan the surrounding landscape.
VivaTech is the world’s rendezvous for startups and leaders to celebrate innovation. The fourth edition takes place 16–18 May 2019 at Paris Expo Porte de Versailles.
From top speakers and exhibitions to Labs and live experiences, VivaTech is a celebration of today’s innovations and tomorrow’s possibilities for everyone who believes in the power of technology to transform business and society.