In the future, it may be possible to bypass gridlock on the roads by taking to the air in a new kind of transportation. Meet the air taxi, a mix of a helicopter and an airplane that will take you from A to B on-demand like a cab. This will take personal transportation into the air – similar to what films like “Star Wars” or “The Fifth Element” have already shown us.
Although this idea is not yet a reality, the first companies worldwide are already working on the implementation and market launch of their air taxi models. In this article, we introduce you to the various aircraft and their technologies and look at when you can expect to be able to take off in an air taxi. Plus, we interviewed the team at the German company Lilium on what their vision for aerial urban ridesharing looks like.
The Lilium Jet from German start-up Lilium looks like a futuristic mix of an airplane, a hammerhead shark and a manta ray, and its appearance alone makes it impressive. Thanks to modern technology, the Lilium Jet can even take off and land vertically, which is extremely important in order to be able to land precisely and not have to use long runways like those at airports. Therefore, inner-city use is also possible for this air taxi model, in theory.
The Lilium Jet offers space for four passengers and a pilot, a cruising speed of up to 186 miles per hour, and a range of about 186 miles. These are impressive stats, as they would allow routes between cities, like from New York to Baltimore or Chicago to Indianapolis, to be covered in just one hour.
Lilium was founded in 2015 and the founding team consists of former students of the Technical University of Munich. Today, more than 400 people at Lilium are working on the vision of the Lilium Jet, which will hopefully take off as an air cab in various cities around the world starting in 2025.
Interview with Lilium
We asked the team from Lilium some questions about the Lilium Jet project. Here are the answers to select questions.
How far along is the development and testing? What still needs to be researched and developed?
Over the past five years, we have grown from a four-person founding team working on scale prototypes to a large team of over 400 people. We are now working on the technology of full-scale demonstration models, which we can already fly at speeds of over 62 mph.
The technology to fly the Lilium Jet already exists, but there is of course a rigorous testing process required to get it approved for public use. We are making good progress with that and plan to launch our service in two or three regions of the world as early as 2025. Looking a little further into the future, autonomous flight is certainly possible but still requires research and development.
Once the regulatory approval is there, how quickly can you start production and get the Lilium Jets in the air?
Having just completed our first production facility at our main site in Munich, we are now focusing on the further development of our demonstration aircraft. Once this is complete, it will form the basis for our first series production and support our market entry in 2025.
What do you expect from the government regarding laws for individual air traffic?
The regulations for flying such aircraft already exist and are also the standard for certifying aircraft for public flights. In the longer term, however, the question is how we can integrate a higher volume of flights into the existing airspace.
Where we still have a gap to close is in public acceptance. For that, we must work hard to explain the benefits of our service by highlighting the Lilium Jet’s quiet and zero-emission footprint. The aircraft will be certified to the same safety standards as today’s commercial aircraft.
Are there plans for an autonomous Lilium Jet? Or Lilium Jets in larger or smaller sizes?
The Lilium Jet will be capable of autonomous flight but will fly with a pilot for initial commissioning. However, the aircraft will already be doing much of the work, with a triple-redundant flight control system onboard controlling the balance of propulsion thrust in each of the 36 engines. Different power is used to make the directional changes needed for navigation and stability.
We have a world-class team of autonomy experts led by Mirko Reuter, who previously led Audi’s autonomous driving program, to develop our autonomy program. We are confident that the technology is in place to enable fully autonomous flights in the timeframe we envision.
Since the aircraft will initially fly with a pilot, it will have four passenger seats available. Once autonomous flight is possible, the number of passenger seats will increase to five.
What will your pricing be like? Will you be competitive compared to prices for bus, rail and air transportation?
We aim for competitive prices compared with the next-best alternative means of transport. For short distances, therefore, the price could be comparable to a taxi or ride-hailing service, while longer distances would be comparable to short-haul flights. On each route, we would try to offer time savings of at least 50 percent for the same price.
What does your target group of customers look like?
Our target group includes anyone who wants to travel quickly and in an environmentally friendly way. At Lilium, we dream of a world where everyone can fly, anywhere, anytime. Road traffic and congestion are significant problems of mobility. However, we believe that the impact of traffic on people is a bigger issue. We want people to spend less time in traffic and more time with family and friends and doing the important things in life.
A US entrant into the sustainable air mobility market, California-based Archer, is planning to bring its electric air taxis to the market starting in 2024 in Los Angeles. In fact, it was announced in February 2021 that United Airlines had committed to buy 200 flying electric taxis to transport passengers to hub airports. Regulatory approval is still needed in the US for this new kind of aircraft, however. The airline also made an investment in Archer. The company’s electric flying taxis will take off vertically like a helicopter but fly like an airplane, making them ideal for urban use. Its sustainability goal is to bring the cost of using these electric air taxis down to the same price as ridesharing, and eventually, to the cost of car ownership. According to Archer, their air taxis can fly up to 60 miles at 150 mph.
Another start-up from Germany is Volocopter, whose VoloCity air taxi is specially designed for inner-city flights. With a flying speed of about 68 mph and a range of about 22 miles, the VoloCity air taxi is suitable for shorter distances, unlike the Lilium Jet. The 18 rotors, which make the VoloCity look like a helicopter at first glance, are said to have high efficiency and flight stability. There is room on board for two passengers and their carry-on luggage.
Volocopter has also already presented a prototype for the landing pad, or air taxi station, which is quite appropriately called a Voloport.
CityAirbus is the air taxi project of the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and is visually reminiscent of a mix of a helicopter and a drone. The CityAirbus will offer space for four passengers. A pilot is not envisioned, as autonomous operation is planned. However, this also means that the CityAirbus will only commute on fixed routes like a bus, i.e. it will not fly to individual destinations. Nevertheless, this air cab is a great alternative for commuters on their way between home and work, as the commute can of course be covered much faster than, for example, using your own car on congested roads during rush hour.
The speed is stated as a maximum of about 75 mph and the range on one battery charge is around 31 miles. The prototype of the CityAirbus is currently being developed and tested in Germany.