Delivered. gets inventive with Charles Bombardier

The Canadian engineer and inventor on the innovation that runs in his family – and why the future of logistics is, partly, airborne.

Invention and innovation is in Charles Bombardier’s blood. If that name sounds familiar it’s because his grandfather was Joseph-Armand Bombardier, founder of aerospace and transportation giant Bombardier Inc. – and the man who invented the snowmobile. “I feel as though I’m carrying on a family tradition,” says Bombardier. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been tinkering with things to find out how they work. I’ve been coming up with ideas for amazing machines all my life.”

After he finished his engineering degree, Bombardier – who is based in Montréal, Canada – began working for the family business at spin-off company Bombardier Recreational Products. In 2006, after managing a team of engineers at the company’s research and development center, he decided to set up on his own and “try to reinvent the world” by working independently on various electric vehicle prototypes.

In 2013, he began writing a vehicle concepts column for Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper, and he founded Imaginactive, a nonprofit organization that has the aim of inspiring the next generations to “dream, believe and build the vehicles of tomorrow.” Bombardier does this by coming up with concepts – he aims to think up one a week – and then sharing them openly online. He doesn’t patent them so that others can work on the ideas, too. 

“I want feedback from people,” he says. “I want to know: do you like the idea? Is it good? Stupid? Workable? Can it be improved? I don’t have time to ask every expert or drive market studies on all the concepts I’m working on. So I rely on social and mainstream media to carry my ideas and generate reactions.” Concepts include an autonomous ski and snowboard delivery vehicle, a cross between a quad bike and a tractor that transports barrels of water to villages in Africa, and even a space-themed hotel that simulates the experience of living in a planetary colony.

Bombardier isn’t afraid to let his incredible imagination run wild, although telling the world about his ideas can be unnerving. “That's because they are unfinished thoughts, so I’m putting my neck on the line to get the discussion going. But you have to stay the course. If you don’t, nothing gets created.”

What is your idea of a successful idea?

When it makes headlines around the world. An example was my idea for the Skreemr supersonic jet, which could travel five times the speed of Concorde. It was picked up by the press and someone from NASA read about it and called me to say: “I have an idea that could reduce its sonic boom and solve the heat problems on the fuselage.” That led to its successor, the Antipode aircraft, which in turn led to the Paradoxal, which would be capable of flying on a suborbital parabolic trajectory, traveling from Los Angeles to Sydney in less than three hours.

Where do you get your ideas from?

Everyday life. Every time I travel, or work, or use a product, I always try to find a way to improve the experience. For example, I was at the airport when it occurred to me that I have to wait in line to get my ticket. Then I have to wait in line again to go to the security checkpoint, and again for border immigration – and again to board the airplane. So I thought: “Why not do all these things at once?” I came up with the Nexovia people mover – a train that takes passengers through all these steps and then delivers them directly to their gate.

How easy is it to turn that sort of idea into reality?

The problem is regulation that blocks the imaginations of inventors and innovators. Take the electric vehicles that we all want to see in our cities. We could use them right now because we have the technology. But because of existing infrastructure, laws and red tape – and people who make a fuss about every small detail – it’ll be a while before we get rid of combustion engines in our cities.

Does logistics ever figure in your thinking?

Yes, all the time. For example, there’s my UPEX concept: a driverless truck that delivers packages around cities at night; and the Hypership, a high-speed autonomous magnetic and hover train system built to ship merchandise cross-country, powered by forests of solar trees. Then there’s the Ecotranzit, a shipping robot that carries packages on urban sidewalks and cycle paths; and a food drone called the Foxtrot which is designed to deliver ingredients from the supermarket to your location while you’re watching a cooking show.

Will delivery drones ever take flight in a meaningful way?

Yes. I think the main market for drones will be surveillance, but they’ll play a big part in logistics. Customers want direct delivery to their doors, but they will increasingly be living in city apartment blocks; so my idea is to have a delivery drone – like the Foxtrot – that can land on their balconies. This is what I call the Drone Tower concept. The balconies are basically large landing pads with guardrails that move down so the drone can drop off the package, then move back up again. Maybe the first step would be to design a tower block with a rooftop that could receive the drones, and then a robot could deliver the package to your door. Regulation, again, is the challenge. Safety is an issue, and drones create a lot of noise so we need to find a way to make them quieter. We also need to develop batteries that last longer.  

Would a pipe system be viable – one that delivers parcels to your door, even if you live on the 50th floor?

For sure. Those kinds of compressed air pipe delivery services used to exist in the 1930s. Hmm. Let’s see. The pipes would have to be visible either inside or outside of the building... and they’d act like a mini Hyperloop. Maybe that’s a good idea! I’ll try to work on that! —  Tony Greenway

Published: June 2017

Image: PR