If you have ever watched the 1997 sci fi film the ‘Fifth Element’ set in a future time when people get around in flying cars and have also sat in a traffic jam on one of the UK’s crowded roads you would not be alone in wishing the future was here and you could just fly, to work and back, to meetings or for pleasure by just jumping in a flying taxi.
Well, that future is nearer than we may think. In April, last year a German start up based in Munich called Lilium saw test flights of the “world’s first” electric jet plane capable of taking off and landing vertically, successfully completed in Germany.
The two-seater prototype aircraft is designed by Lilium as an airborne alternative to on-demand ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft.
The vehicle took off vertically like a helicopter before flying horizontally like a regular aeroplane during the test flights and was piloted remotely for its first voyages, although Lilium hopes to test a manned flight in the near future. It also plans to launch a five-seater version of the same craft.
The craft features rows of electric jet engines mounted on the front and rear wings tilt to switch between vertical and horizontal flight. There are 36 engines in total.
According to the company, the craft is the only electric aircraft capable of vertical take-off and landing.
Daniel Wiegand, Lilium’s CEO, said the company had solved some of the “toughest engineering challenges in aviation” with the design.
“The successful test flight programme shows that our ground-breaking technical design works exactly as we envisioned,” he said. “We can now turn our focus to designing the five-seater production aircraft.”
Vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) is not a new concept but previous proposals for electric VTOL craft have involved tilting rotors or drone-like propellers mounted horizontally.
However, Lilium claims to have developed an electric version of a jet engine, which is more powerful and more efficient at high speeds, as well as being quieter and vibration- and emission-free aircraft powered by electric jets do not require tail fins or steering flaps, since they can be individually controlled,
On their website Lilium states, “Lilium Jets require no gearboxes, no foldable or variable pitch propellers, no water-cooling, and no aerodynamic steering flaps, as we can provide differential thrust from the engines in cruise flight, no stabilising tail is necessary.” And the company believes the craft could one day rival road-based taxi services in urban areas.
“The combination of energy-efficient flight and minimal ground infrastructure will enable passenger flights with comparable pricing to normal car taxis over the same distance,” it added.
Lilium’s test flights came soon after Airbus presented its concept for a tilting rotor powered flying electric car at the Geneva Motor Show last year.
Transport Designer, Paul Priestman’s prediction that single person electric planes represent the future of aviation is supported by both Airbus and Lililum’s designs. He said “We’ve got these electric drones flying around everywhere, [Electric planes are] just a scaled-up version really. I think that’s going to get really interesting – it could be the beginning of personalised transportation.”
And now, Uber has signed its second agreement with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, which will see them explore concepts and technologies needed for passenger and cargo air transportation within an urban area, in a project which could lead to the creation of a super-advanced new taxi. As part of the pact, the ride-hailing company will share data related to its efforts to build flying taxis in 2020 for the development of NASA’s urban air mobility (UAM) program.
NASA says it will begin simulations for so-called “urban air mobility” vehicles that also include delivery drones.
The announcement comes as the Uber Elevate summit in Los Angeles brings together tech and transportation leaders to discuss the future of urban aviation. NASA says the goal is to create a rideshare network that will allow residents to hail a small aircraft the same way Uber users can now use an app to call a car. The space agency also said simulations are planned at its research facility at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport.
Uber’s head of product Jeff Holden, speaking at the Web Summit in Lisbon recently, said, “The partnership, signed under NASA’s Space Act Agreement, will enable Uber to develop an on-demand, app-based flying taxi service – named UberAIR. It will begin tests in Los Angeles in 2020, and subsequently Dallas, Fort Worth and Frisco.”
“This Space Act Agreement paves the way forward for Uber to collaborate with NASA on the development of next-generation airspace management technology.”
“UberAIR will be performing far more flights over cities on a daily basis than has ever been done before,” Holden added. “Doing this safely and efficiently is going to require a foundational change in airspace management technologies.”
Uber believes Los Angeles, notorious for its bad traffic, could see its transport drastically changed by electric planes – with an 80-minute journey on the ground taking less than 30 minutes in the air.
“In this case, technology will allow LA residents to literally fly over the city’s historically bad traffic, giving them time back to use in far more productive ways, whether more leisure time with friends and family or more time to work,” said Holden.
“At scale, we expect UberAIR will perform tens of thousands of flights each day across the city – at those levels, all the time savings will have a noticeable positive impact on the region’s economy,” he added.