Lilium electric jet and air taxi: Germany’s Tesla?

Excerpt from Tech Crunch, 5 Sep 2017

It is the insistence that the Lilium VTOL jet should be solely electric-powered that really stands out and has left some aviation experts skeptical that the startup can reach its goal of speeds up to 300 kph and a distance of 300 km. Wiegand sounds unfazed.

The biggest challenge is with batteries… Compared to gasoline, there is roughly one hundred times less energy per kilogram of batteries than there is per kilogram of gasoline, and that means you have to have an aircraft concept that is extremely efficient in the way it deals with the energy and is extremely efficient in moving forward in the air. There we have been extremely successful, specifically inventing a new aircraft concept that hasn’t been done before,” he explains.

There are many differences in the details, such as using electric jet engines not open propellers. “Electric jet engines give a better compromise between safety, efficiency, noise and performance,” he explains. “There are also other things like the aircraft concept itself. If you look closely at the aircraft you’ll see there is no tail, because the tail adds drag and adds weight to an aircraft. We’ve done optimizations in almost every field, from aerodynamics, to lightweight design, to the propulsion concept”.

Of course, beyond the specific technical challenges posed by an all-electric VTOL, an air taxi service on the scale that Lilium envisions will require considerable buy-in from legislators and the wider public. Won’t things like noise pollution and skyline pollution be an issue if we are to see an entirely new flight-based transportation system become a reality? Not so, reckons the Lilium founder.

“Of course we thought of potential downsides from day one, that’s why we have invested a tremendous amount of energy and money to reduce the noise of these electric engines to the lowest possible degree. We’ve been hugely successful in that,” he explains. “The aircraft is around four times less noisy than a helicopter and you can only hear it when it is taking off and landing. Once the aircraft is in flight at a one kilometre altitude, for example, you can’t hear it from the ground. And that’s a huge benefit”.

In terms of visibility, Wiegand says that, for the most part, you probably won’t notice the presence of Lilium jets because they will fly at quite high altitude. “It’s a small tiny dot but you can’t completely vanish it,” he says. Unlike cars, you won’t ever see hundreds of Lilium jets in one spot, either. And at five times faster, less are needed “to do the same transportation job as cars”.

You can’t hear it when it’s flying, you don’t need to build any infrastructure that cuts through nature, and it doesn’t create any emissions [fine dust or CO2],” says Wiegand, claiming that the Lilium jet can potentially become the means of transportation that creates the smallest impact on the environment possible.

But perhaps the greatest upside is the impact an air taxi service like Lilium could have on productivity and therefore the economy. “It’s not only a benefit in terms of relieving society from transit traffic, but the much, much bigger benefit would be that everyone can use it and that people can get to their destination five times quicker, basically a five times increase of their daily radius of life. This connectivity is going to be a huge benefit to society but also economic growth,” he says.

All of which makes it even more curious that Lilium’s founding story paints Wiegand as an almost accidental entrepreneur, first conceiving of Lilium all the way back in November 2013, two years before recruiting his co-founders Sebastian Born, Matthias Meiner and Patrick Nathen.

Recalls the Lilium CEO: “I was alone when I had the idea that this would be the perfect means of transportation. It was more a fun project for me to make some calculations and concept estimations and to see whether it’s physically possible. And a friend of mine said, ‘hey, you can do this, you have to do this, it’s just too amazing’. We had drunk maybe a little bit too much beer, but actually the idea that he had sparked to found a company that builds a new kind of transportation system, it didn’t go away, so I decided to go back to Germany and assemble a founding team and set up a company that builds these aircrafts”.

On the topic of Lilium’s Munich-based HQ, Wiegand says the jet’s ‘made in Germany’ engineering has been “a very good friend that is well-known,” not least in the eyes of investors. “I think people knew that for hardware there is no better place to do it,” he says, noting that Southern Germany is home to world-class and hugely successful engineering companies such as BMW, Siemens, Audi, and Porsche. If all goes to plan, perhaps one day Lilium can be added to that list.

You can’t hear it when it’s flying, you don’t need to build any infrastructure that cuts through nature, and it doesn’t create any emissions — Lilium co-founder and CEO Daniel Wiegand