Ordinarily, digital milling machines, industrial lathes and 3D printers at the Toulouse site of Airbus (Haute-Garonne) are busy producing aircraft. But, since May 2022, the aeronautical company has put its technology at the service of a completely different challenge: producing the equipment for the Paralympic athletes of the French team.
The agreement reached with the National Sports Agency (ANS) was formalized on March 17. Valued at half a million euros, it is of particular importance in the race for medals. France aims to be in the top 5 nations of the Paralympic Games in Paris. More than 500 days from the planetary event, the technical battle has already begun.
In the “protospace”the Airbus prototyping center in Blagnac, the voice of Elur Alberdi, para-rowing world champion in the mixed double sculls (PR3), resounds between the machines: “I’m always afraid of losing my oar if there’s wind or waves on the body of water. It would be silly to let an Olympic medal slip away like that.
The rower from the Endaika club in Hendaye suffers from a lack of mobility in her right wrist which handicaps her oar grip. “I can only move the tips of my knuckles, so I use a glove to hold on. But this equipment is cumbersome, expensive, and it is not specifically adapted to my pathology”explains the 45-year-old rower.
” No product exists on the market for Paralympic athletesnotes at his side Christophe Debard, engineer and head of protospace. But here, we have the ability to find suitable solutions. The athletes’ equipment does not really differ from an airplane wing: we seek to optimize performance by working on the structure, the material, the aerodynamics, the mechanical system, the tribology. Here, for example, we have the prototype of a rigid blade, armed with a bumper for the fingers, which will allow Elur to marry the movement of the oar without constraint”.
” It is magic ! », laughs the rower, jacket of the France team on the shoulders. Through the laboratory window, Christophe Debard shouts at his trainer: “You will tell me if he passes the medical approval! “. Last step before use, the equipment must be validated by the medical commissions of the federations.
Equipment, a strategic axis
As for Elur Alberdi, nineteen projects have been selected to date by the ANS and Airbus, as part of the “Blue Ambition” plan, which targets high-potential athletes to optimize their performance. “Our goal is to win 22 to 25 Paralympic titles and 65 to 70 medals in all. That is to say, to double our balance sheet of the Rio Games, notes Arnaud Litou, Paralympic performance manager at the ANS. To achieve this, the material is a lever on which we can act. The expertise that Airbus brings is revolutionary for us, it allows us to offer athletes, coaches and federations a technological advantage over other nations”.
If the commercial partnership with Airbus was formalized in March, the exchange of skills dates back to 2017, when engineers had volunteered their help to improve the chair of David Toupé, para-badminton champion. ” I needed a room so I knocked next to my house, at Airbus, explains the Toulouse sportsman. Not only was I able to acquire the part, but I also continued to develop my chair with the engineers: the wheels, the chair, the seat, the weight, without having to buy fifteen chairs or go through all of them. my evenings. In three months we did what would have taken me five years on my own “.
David Toupé’s “2.0” armchair had not gone unnoticed by the ANS, which was then looking to change gear after a disappointing 12e place on the medal table at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016. That same year, the design studio of German car manufacturer BMW redesigned the racing wheelchair for the American track and field team, winning seven titles in the wheelchair categories (T52 , T54) and marking the start of a true technological race between nations.
However, the agreement with Airbus does not guarantee any exclusivity to the ANS. “A matter of competition”we are assured by the aeronautical company. “Our trade remains aircraft, we are not going to open a new branch, says Sabine Klauke, technical director of Airbus. But we are proud to put our technologies at the service of French athletes. It drives us to innovate. »
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Half of the envelope allocated to the participating federations has already been spent, but not all the projects are at the same stage of progress. Some equipment only requires a few hours of work, while others mobilize up to 40 people over several months.
Paralympic triathlon champion (PTS4 category), Alexis Hanquinquant, is one of the beneficiaries of this program. “When the ANS offered me this line of work, it was obvious. I was the first to run and ride a bike with the same carbon prosthesis and it saved me a lot of time on the transition. But since the Tokyo games, I have been imitated by my competitors. So I have to innovate so as not to lose my technical advantage. I won’t say more, it’s still a secret.”explains the champion, who came specially from Seine-Maritime to test his equipment.
“It’s a matter of timing. Not too early not to be imitated, not too late to ensure that the material is in the nails of international regulations, weighs his trainer, Nicolas Pouleau. Material, shape, aerodynamics, confidentiality remains in order. ” It won’t replace training. says Alexis Hanquinquant, but it could be the difference between a chocolate medal and a Paralympic title in Paris “.