It's Like Uber for Flying Electric Taxis: Lilium Is a 5-Seater Electric VTOL Airplane

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©. Lilium

This electric "jet" can take off and land vertically, has a 300 km range, and could be summoned by an app for on-demand low-carbon travel.

Do we really need cars that can fly, or will small electric air taxis do the trick? Although there is a bit of a cultural fascination with flying cars, thanks to the work of sci-fi authors and filmmakers, building a vehicle that can not only drive efficiently on the roads, but that can also take off and fly safely through the air, might be one of those projects better left to Hollywood, but that hasn't stopped anyone from working on them. Considering how different the technical and safety demands are for a vehicle that flies versus one that drives, keeping the technologies separate could be for the best, and instead of trying to integrate them into a single conveyance, more effort might best be put into building electric multi-modal transport options that work well together.

One promising option for electric transportation that goes well beyond the roads, and could work in concert with other modes of transport on a longer journey, comes from Lilium, which has built a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) airplane, powered by electric "jet" engines. Although the company refers to the engines on the aircraft as "jet" engines, they're more like high-performance ducted electric fans than true conventional jet engines, but the tiltable electric engines on the Lilium do allow for the craft to take off straight up and then transition to horizontal flight with little noise or vibration.

The Lilium is a canard-style aircraft, with a small wing on the nose of the plane and a larger one (10 meter wingspan) at the rear, both of which integrate multiple electric engines (12 at the front, and 24 at the rear). Five passengers will fit into a Lilium, and the aircraft is said to have a top speed of 300 kph (186 mph) and a flying range of 300 km (186 miles) per charge, along with being much quieter than conventional planes and with zero emissions at the point of use. With electric propulsion, costs should be lower as well, not only for 'fuel' but also for maintenance, as electric motors have very few moving parts, which means much less complexity in manufacturing and fewer failure points.

Lilium jet VTOL electric plane

© Lilium
The company's 2-seater prototype just recently completed its maiden flight, and was able to successfully execute a variety of complex maneuvers, "including its signature mid-air transition from hover mode to wing-borne forward flight".

According to the company website, the team aims to be the leading firm in on-demand air transport, "by providing quiet, eco-friendly and exceptionally designed VTOL jets and a magical user experience." Its carbon-fiber Lilium Jet has rigid wings with tiltable flaps for the electric engines, which allows for vertical take-offs without having to tilt the entire wings, and the aircraft's design incorporates gull-wing doors, panoramic windows, and room for luggage in the passenger compartment.

Lilium is working on the 5-seater version of the plane, with the intent of putting them into service as on-demand air taxis. According to the company, flying in a Lilium Jet could be "at least 5X faster than by car. with even greater efficiencies in busy cities," and flying from JFK Airport in New York to Manhattan "will take around 5 minutes, compared to the 55 minutes it would take you by car."

This electric plane, while promising to be rather expensive (as airplanes often are), could be another part of the coming cleaner transportation revolution, not only by enabling more emissions-free (at the point of use) mobility, but also by bridging the gap between drive-length commutes and longer flights and possibly by helping to relieve road congestion and gridlock once the technology matures. However, we may also end up seeing a different sort of 'flying car' in the air earlier than the offering from Lilium, as a Silicon Valley startup called Kitty Hawk aims to begin selling its electric "Flyer" vehicle by the end of the year.