Innovation & Technology

Alain Thébault (See Bubbles): "It’s kind of a fantasy to fly over a river in a bubble"

Alain Thébault has been working on his childhood dream for 25 years now: flying on water. He conceived of a flying trimaran, the Hydroptère, in which he set several world speed records. Today, he hopes to revolutionize water-based transport in big cities with the aid of small, eco-friendly vehicles that ‘fly’ above the water called Sea Bubbles.
Alain Thébault, Founder & vice-president, Sea Bubbles

© Sea Bubbles

Alain Thébault has been working on his childhood dream for 25 years now: flying on water. He conceived of a flying trimaran, the Hydroptère, in which he set several world speed records. Today, he hopes to revolutionize water-based transport in big cities with the aid of small, eco-friendly vehicles that ‘fly’ above the water called Sea Bubbles.


Leaders League. How did the idea for a futuristically designed flying car come to you?   

Alain Thébault. It was my girls who had the idea. On arriving at the finish of my trans-Pacific crossing in Hawaii in June 2015, my kids said to me: “You are a cool dad, you beat the world sailing speed record, but why don't you use your inventiveness for the good of mankind? We live in big polluted cities couldn’t you give everyone the opportunity to fly on water?” And from that was born the Sea Bubble. I took out my little green notebook and my pen and started to sketch a bubble with submerged wings, that would allow it to rise up above the water, giving the impression that it flew. Man has built great cities on rivers, on bays – like San Francisco – or lakes – like Geneva. The problem today is the same in all the cities of the world: the thoroughfares are completely clogged up with traffic and there is lots of useable space on the water. The general idea is to harness all the waterways in a manner that is zero-noise, zero-wake and zero-emission.

 

The Sea Bubble is an eco-friendly vehicle. Where does it get its energy from?

The idea is to have a bubble that’s connected to an autonomous ecosystem energy-wise. It’s kind of a fantastic notion, to fly over a river powered by the river’s own energy.  So I thought of using turbines. Tidal or river currents turn propellers under the quay and the energy produced is stored in batteries under the mooring pontoon. When the bubbles dock, their battery is recharged by induction. In New York, for example, the intensity of the current of the Hudson river is sufficient to make the quays energy-autonomous. The same is true for the Thames in London. Unfortunately this is not the case for the Seine, whose flow is not strong enough to turn the turbines. We will therefore plug the bubbles into an electric charger. But our objective is still to use natural energy, and not atomic or coal.

 

Isn’t a driverless taxi dangerous?

No, it’s not dangerous. In Paris, however we are obliged to use a pilot and what’s more the authorities even wanted to impose a deckhand on us! In the United States, our American investor has faith in us and we are going to go straight to pilotless bubbles there. The water has neither pedestrians nor strollers. There are boat bars and tour boats, but these are easy to avoid.

 

Aren’t you afraid that the Sea Bubble will become a kind of tourist attraction?

I wouldn’t mind that at all! Whatever the reason people take the bubbles, it means less exhaust fumes. These days public transport, be it bus or sight-seeing tour boat, often circulate empty. Ubers transport one or two people from point A to point B. Water busses don’t work in Paris because you have to wait too long for them. The Sea Bubble, in contrast, is a means of transport that’s small, easy and rapidly available. But in Paris, where the speed limit on water is restricted to 18kph, we might well ask ourselves what’s the point of taking a Sea Bubble, if it’s slower than a bicycle. I have suggested that we increase the speed-limit, but I have no intention of fighting 50 years to get it. After our demonstration in Paris in June we will be having a pop-up tour to showcase the bubble and its ecosystem across the world.         


Express Bio

1987: Built, with Eric Tabarly, a scale-model of the Hydroptère

2005: Broke the sailing speed record for crossing the English Channel

2009: Set a new outright sailing speed record at an average of 50.17 knots over one nautical mile

2016: Created the startup Sea Bubble

2017: Scheduled first trial of the flying bubble on the Seine

 

Author: Marion Robert
Translator: Simon McGeady

 

Find more analysis articles & interviews in our 2017 Innovation, Technology & IP Report.

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