Deciding whether it’s quicker to travel by land or air to your home, favourite restaurant or next meeting may become commonplace sooner than expected.
Lilium, the Munich-based startup famed for testing a two-seater air taxi in 2017, has just unveiled its latest model: a five-seat, all-electric air taxi powered by 36 ducted fans. The aircraft—which completed a successful vertical take-off and landing in early May—has been given a series of upgrades to become sleeker, quieter, safer and more cost-effective.
And ,according to the company, the model could be ready for commercial use within just a few years. A large on-demand service is planned for 2025, with trials in some cities before then.
“Today we are taking another huge step towards making urban air mobility a reality,” said Lilium CEO Daniel Wiegand in a statement. “In less than two years we have been able to design, build and successfully fly an aircraft that will serve as our template for mass production.
“With the perfect balance of range and speed, our aircraft has the potential to positively impact the way people choose to live and travel, all over the world.”
The futuristic vehicle works by sucking in air and pushing it out of the fans at higher speeds. The fans, arranged in rows on the smaller front and wider rear of the plane, can rotate in order to provide vertical or horizontal thrust for take-off and cruising, respectively. Fans at the front are used for dipping and pitching the nose, whereas those at the back deal with rolling movements.
Lilium is adamant that the plane will eventually be able to fly 300 km in 60 minutes, with zero operating emissions, using a battery a similar size to ones used in electric cars. But there’s limited proof so far: The plane’s successful test involved hovering a few feet above the ground before returning back down to earth, according to Wired.
For all flying vehicles, safety is a key concern. Lilium stresses that each of the aircraft’s 36 aerospace-grade motors are independently operated, meaning failure to one would not mean failure to the whole. The shape of the plane allows for gliding—followed by the deployment of a ballistic parachute—should power cut out completely.
Air taxi companies are keen to move quickly into automation, saving training and labour costs on employing pilots. But risks are involved: How can small aircraft receive information about hazards and communicate with one another to avoid collisions?
Somewhat unexpectedly, Malawi has emerged as a potential solution to the challenges. It is the location for the largest drone testing site in the world, in which autonomous flying aircraft have learned to use particular technologies to help them share the same congested airspace without colliding. Experts hope these lessons could be applied to all forms of flying vehicles.
For Lilium, all that stands in the way of a full roll-out is detailed flight testing and the legal right to fly. With recent permission granted to Google’s autonomous delivery drones, such a reality seems more likely every day.