The Electric Lilium Jet Directive on the Future of Air Taxi

The old science fiction fantasy of a flying car that both drives on the ground and flies in the air is unlikely to revolutionize daily commutes. Instead, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and aerospace companies dream of electric-powered aircraft that can take off vertically like helicopters but have the flight efficiency of airplanes. The German startup Lilium took a very public step forward in that direction by demonstrating the first electric-powered jet capable of vertical takeoff and landing last week.

The Lilium Jet prototype that made its maiden debut resembles a flattened pod with stubby thrusters in front and a longer wing with engines in the back. The final design concept shows two wings hold a combined 36 Electric turbofan engines that can tilt to provide both vertical lifting thrust and horizontal thrust for forwarding flight. Such electric engines powered by lithium-ion batteries could enable a quieter breed of aircraft that someday cut travel times for ride-hailing commuters from hours to minutes in cities such as San Francisco or New York. On its website, Lilium promises an air taxi that could eventually carry up to five people at speeds of 190 miles per hour: about the same speed as a Formula One racing car. And it’s promising that passengers could begin booking the Lilium Jet as part of an air taxi service by 2025.

“From a technology point of view, there is not a challenge that cannot be solved,” says Patrick Nathen, a cofounder, and head of calculation and design for Lilium. “The biggest challenge right now is to build the company as fast as possible in order to catch that timeline.”

Nathen and his cofounders met just three and a half years ago. But within that short time, they put together a small team and began proving their dream of an electric jet capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL). Lilium began with seed funding from a tech incubator under the European Space Agency but has since attracted financial backing from private investors and venture capital firms.

Getting Lilium off the ground probably would not have been possible just five years ago, Nathen says. But the team took full advantage of the recent technological changes that have lowered the price on both materials—such as electric circuits and motors—and manufacturing processes such as 3D printing. Lower costs enabled Lilium to quickly and cheaply begin assembling prototypes to prove that their computer simulations could really deliver on the idea of an electric VTOL jet.

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