One of Germany’s premier flying taxi startups just gained a foothold in the US. Lilium, the five-year-old venture-backed startup from Munich, announced that it will build a 56,000-square-foot transportation hub for its aerial taxi service in Orlando, Florida. The company aims to have passengers taking regional trips in its electric five-seater aircraft starting in 2025.
Lilium says it will construct a $25 million “vertiport” in Lake Nona, a planned community of about 65,000 people within the Orlando city limits. It will work with the primary real estate developer in the area, Bahamas-based Tavistock Development Company, on the development and construction of the vertiport.
Lilium says its project will be privately financed, though the Orlando city council is considering awarding the company an $831,250 tax break over nine years, according to the Orlando Business Journal. Lilium says it will create more than 100 jobs, and the city estimates the transportation hub will generate $1.7 million in economic activity in a 10-year period.
Lilium is the latest electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) startup to take an incremental step toward launching a full-scale regional transportation service. The company’s chief operating officer, Remo Gerber, told The Verge the plan is to create service where passengers can fly to nearby cities in a much shorter time than it takes to drive.
“So now they can connect to Tampa in 30 minutes, which is a notorious one-and-a-half to two-hour drive,” Gerber said. “There’s no other alternative to get there. But you can not just get to Tampa, but you can go one further, two extra minutes and you’re in St. Petersburg.”
Lilium burst out onto the scene in 2017 when it announced the first test flight of its two-seater prototype. Two years later, the company started testing its five-seater prototype, the Lilium Jet.
The Jet is not your typical aircraft: there is no tail, rudder, propellers, or gearbox. It has an egg-shaped cabin perched on landing gear with a pair of parallel tilt-rotor wings. The wings were fitted with a total of 36 electric jet engines that tilt up for vertical takeoff and then shift forward for horizontal flight. In final form, the Lilium Jet will have a range of 300 kilometers (186 miles) and a top speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), the company says.
That’s much farther than many of its competitors are predicting of their electric aircraft. Gerber said this was due to the Jet’s fixed-wing design, which requires less than 10 percent of its maximum 2,000 horsepower during cruise flight.
Just this past year alone, the company has raised $275 million from investors, including Baillie Gifford, the 112-year-old Scottish asset management firm that is the second-biggest shareholder in Tesla after Elon Musk. But the funding round fell short of the $400–500 million that TechCrunch reported the company was pursuing last October. Lilium denies it was seeking to raise that much money, citing lower labor costs in Germany.
Lilium isn’t the only company with designs for flying taxis. There are more than 100 different electric aircraft programs in development worldwide, with big names including Joby Aviation, Volocopter, Ehang, and Wisk Aero, as well as planned offerings from Hyundai, Toyota, Airbus, Boeing, and Bell, which is partnered with Uber.
Lilium also isn’t the only eVTOL company with aims for a US-based service. Earlier this year, Chinese drone maker Ehang demonstrated its autonomous air taxi in the US for the first time, with its all-electric two-seater flying above a test track south of Raleigh, North Carolina, for about five minutes.
Another German startup, Volocopter, unveiled its latest model at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2018. It also built a pop-up vertiport in Singapore for a tech conference late last year. The company recently started accepting reservations for flights on its 18-rotor electric aircraft — though they won’t be filled until 2023 at the earliest.
Of course, Lilium and all of its competitors will need to overcome many serious technical, financial, and regulatory hurdles before any of their small, battery-powered aircraft are cleared for takeoff. Lilium has yet to publicly demonstrate that the Jet is safe for human passengers, nor has its battery range been independently verified.
The power-to-weight ratio is a huge challenge for electric flight. Energy density — the amount of energy stored in a given system — is the key metric, and today’s batteries don’t contain enough energy to get most planes off the ground. To weigh it out: jet fuel gives us about 43 times more energy than a battery that’s just as heavy.
There have been numerous demonstrations of battery-powered flight, but there are no electric aircraft in commercial operation anywhere in the world. Any flying taxi service will have to be certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration and numerous other aviation regulators across the globe. And Lilium still needs to figure out how it will produce its vehicles at mass scale.
“Building the networks, getting the approvals, is difficult and hard work,” Gerber said, “but I think all of it is possible. We know it’s possible, but it’s certainly something to remain humble about.”