So you thought Tesla’s electric cars are revolutionary? Ha! Electric cars are no longer the coolest kid in school. Airbus and a bunch of start-ups are fervently working on electric, zero-emission, airplanes for personalized transportation. They all share a similar dream: getting you as fast and comfortable as possible from point A to B, through the air. One of these start-ups is Munich-based Lilium, which completed their maiden voyage earlier this month.
Lilium’s fully electric jet (photo: Lilium)
After raising millions in funding of Skype co-founder Zennström’s capital firm Atomico, the 40-people strong team is working hard to create a future “in which everyone can fly anywhere, anytime.” But – I hear you asking – will we need to build a runway in the backyard then? Nope! Because Lilium developed a verticle takeoff and landing (VTOL) plane. While taking off and landing, the plane moves vertically, needing little space for the maneuver. While cruising, the vehicle flies similar to a conventional airplane.
Well… not that similar to be honest. First of all the small plane has no jet engines. Instead, the two-person prototype has 36 electric fans. While taking off and landing, they are positioned vertically, while during cruising they are tilted horizontally. Steering happens by controlling the fans independently, so there is no need for flaps and a rear wing as in conventional airplanes.
Although this month’s two-seater prototype flight only took a few minutes and was controlled by a pilot on the ground, Lilium hopes to move on quickly to its five-seater vehicle for the market. The company aims for a cruising speed of 300 km/h and a range of 300 km. Bold claims. Very, very bold claims. Even most electric cars cannot do that on one charge. To bridge large distances, a large battery is needed, making the vehicle heavier… which drains that bigger battery faster. Not an easy task for Lilium’s engineers to find the sweet spot.
Are we supposed to fly those little planes ourselves? If you ask CEO Wiegand, Lilium envisions an Uber-like service. Order a taxi with your app, and soon you are on your way, flying over the traffic jams. Never late again for a date!
But okay, let’s be realistic here. Are we going to see flying cars zooming above the city streets anytime soon? I don’t think so. Even if start-ups like Lilium figure out all the technical bottlenecks, they still have to go through all regulatory hurdles. Aviation certification to prove the vehicle is airworthy, who is allowed to fly it, can the plane be autonomous, where can it be flown…? Nonetheless, it is clear personalized air transport is going to break through sooner or later, and tech savvy companies are paving the way.
My personal concern is whether flying cars will reduce transport emissions in the end. “Zero-emission” vehicles indirectly emit depending on how the electricity stored in their batteries has been generated. It has to come from renewables to be a truly carbon-free flight. Personally, I believe the most effective way to bring transport emissions down is via clean public transport, rather than everyone having their own electric vehicle. That’s why I am a huge fan of the Hyperloop concept. But I admit, flying around in your own electric plane sounds very, very cool!
Be sure to check out Lilium’s video about their maiden flight