Lilium’s Jet Takes Off for First Flight, Promising the Age of Flying Cars

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Looking at it, you wouldn’t think the Lilium Jet could fly. It looks more like a computer mouse than any aircraft you’ve seen, and its 36 small propellers run on electricity, not jet fuel. But this funky airplane just proved it can take to the sky, and it might be the flying car you’ve been waiting for.

The jet, which isn’t actually a jet, can take off and land vertically like a helicopter and fly like an airplane, making it just the thing for congested cities because it doesn’t need a runway. In other words, it’s everything you want in a flying car: It picks you up wherever you are, and plunks you down exactly where you want to go.

A full-size prototype of the airplane made its maiden voyage an airfield near Munich earlier this month. It lasted just a few minutes, with no one in either of the two seats, and a pilot controlling it from the ground. But it flew, proving that the unconventional design isn’t total malarkey.

“The basic challenges are solved,” Lilium CEO Daniel Wiegand told WIRED and WIRED Germany in an exclusive interview. Now comes several years of flight testing before moving into serial production. The German startup has backing from the European Space Agency and millions in funding, which will help Wiegand meet his goal of tripling his staff to about 135 people.

Still, Lilium has a long way to go before a weird electric plane with a big battery, three dozen propellers, and room for five passengers carries anyone anywhere, let alone 190 miles at 190 mph, as Wiegand envisions.

“I’d say that’s impossible off the top of my head,” says Richard Pat Anderson, who runs the Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and is developing his own vertical takeoff and landing aircraft. “They’re definitely exceeding some fundamental math.”

Despite advancements in battery tech—Elon Musk thinks they’ve reached the point where they can power an 18-wheeler—jet fuel still stores far more energy per pound, a key consideration in an industry where weight trumps just about everything. So far, Airbus has succeeded in squeezing 60 miles and 137 mph from the 350-pound battery in its experimental two-seater eFan.

The faster and farther you want to fly, the bigger a battery you require. Eventually, you hit a point where the added mass outweighs the benefits of more kilowatt-hours, which is why Airbus decided to try a serial hybrid approach instead and Anderson’s team started there. Serial hybrid aircraft use a fuel-burning generators to recharge the batteries while flying, which makes them something like a flying Chevrolet Volt.

But let’s say Lilium makes this happen, even if it doesn’t quite deliver the specs Wiegand proposes. Building its wild electric plan leads to the Uber-esque air taxi service Wiegand envisions. That could work—if his startup solves a few other problems. The first is figuring out how to certify an entirely new kind of aircraft (Europe will be easier than the US, which doesn’t even have any way to regulate electric planes), set up the necessary landing and takeoff infrastructure, and ensure air traffic control can handle an invasion of aircraft flying a few hundred feet above city streets.

OK, let’s say Lilium solves all that. Then, it gets to fight the competition. Advances in battery tech and electronic flight controls, paired with the success of car-based ridesharing services, have a few startups chasing the same dream. China’s EHang wants to launch its passenger-toting drone in Dubai (of course) this summer. Aeromobil in Slovakia and Terrafugia in Massachusetts have their own take on flying cars (or, as Terrafugia calls it, “roadable aircraft”). Joby Aviation wants to launch an electric flying taxi service within five years.

And if Lilium’s going to win customers away from all those opponents, offering the right balance of speed, range, and cost becomes critical. So yes, the first flight is good news. But don’t expect your flying car to take off just yet.

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