The man who invented the Flyboard Air has been barred from flying his jet-powered hoverboard in France, sparking a debate over the country’s policies on innovation. In a Facebook post on March 10th, Franky Zapata, founder of the company that bears his name, said there is a “strong probability that the Flyboard Air will never fly again in France,” after officials from the French air gendarmerie told him he would be placed under criminal investigation if he continued to pilot the craft. Zapata added that he will now be “obliged to leave France” in order to continue his work.
“That is how innovators are treated in our country,” Zapata wrote in a French-language post. “I leave you [to] imagine my disgust after having produced more than 10,000 ‘made in France’ Flyboards.”
Unveiled in 2016, the Flyboard Air uses an "Independent Propulsion Unit" to fly autonomously for up to ten minutes. (The original Flyboard could only be used when tethered to a watercraft’s turbine.) The hovercraft can reach a maximum height of 10,000 feet, and tops out at a speed of 93 miles per hour, according to Zapata’s company. Zapata used the Flyboard Air to set a Guinness World Record for the farthest hoverboard flight last April, after riding it for a distance of 2,252 meters (7,388 feet) along the coast of southern France.
The prosecutor’s office in Aix-en-Provence said on Tuesday that it opened a preliminary investigation into Zapata for “failure to comply with the minimum rules for overflight and operation of an aircraft without the necessary qualifications,” as reported by Agence France-Presse.
“People were troubled by flights over bridges or close to inhabited areas in Martigues, with an engine that propels a jet of air down, a few meters from the ground with a lot of noise,” said vice prosecutor Emmanuel Merlin. Merlin added that the flight ban was “temporary,” saying: “But even in good standing, one cannot fly anywhere, especially near the airport.”
In an interview with French news station LCI, Zapata said that he was warned about the Flyboard Air after conducting a test flight last week. According to Zapata, officials from the air gendarmerie said he could face steep fines and jail time for flying an unlicensed aircraft above an urban area, using an engine that had not been approved for flight.
A spokesperson for France’s Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC) told AFP that despite being in contact with the agency for several months, Zapata had not adhered to safety regulations, including a requirement to carry out a security study. The spokesperson added that there is still time for Zapata to adhere to the requirements. Zapata told AFP that he had been flying the hovercraft for nearly a year, adding: “We had informed the authorities, everyone told us we were in legal limbo but the process of approval was in progress.”
The incident has sparked a debate over French regulations, with some arguing that they inhibit innovation. Zapata’s Facebook post has been “liked” more than 96,000 times since it was published last week, with many commenters expressing support for him and anger toward the government.
“When an invention sees the light of day, the Americans merchandize it, the Chinese copy it, the Europeans regulate it, and the French ban it,” the liberal-leaning website Contrepoints wrote in an editorial this week. A Change.org petition in support of Zapata garnered more than 15,000 signatures in three days.
Others have defended the ban in the name of public security. “If there are laws, it’s to guarantee public security, so anyone can’t just do whatever they want to the detriment of people’s security,” wrote one commenter on an article from French newspaper Le Parisien.
It is not clear whether Zapata, a former jet ski champion, will indeed relocate his business. Implant Sciences, a US defense tech firm, intended to acquire Zapata Industries last year, but the deal fell apart by December.
“Honestly I am very sad,” Zapata wrote on Facebook, “I love my country[,] I am French in my heart[,] in my culture[,] and in my soul[.] But my passion and my need for freedom win out.”