Lilium Aviation has unveiled its VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) prototype and has backing from Atomico – a European venture capital firm. Lilium, just like Uber, Google, Airbus, and EHang, is now waiting on the ever-so-important safety and regulatory stamp of approval before bringing its flying car to the consumer marketplace.
According to a recent Futurism article, Atomico invested 10 million Euros in Lithium Aviation, a “start-up company that plans on bringing flying cars into reality.” With the same VTOL technology seen in military helicopters, like Urban Aeronautics’ AirMule, Lilium’s prototype uses 36 “directable, ducted electric fans,” has a takeoff weight of 600 kilograms (1,323 lbs), max payload of 200 kilograms (441 lbs), and has a max speed of 250 to 300 kilometers (160 to 190 mph) per hour.
Similar to other VTOL’s like the Ehang 184 drone, Lilium’s flying car is “able to achieve flight by slowly turning the fans horizontally, with the wings and the fuselage generating aerodynamic lift.” Even though Lilium seems to have designed the ideal VTOL with its lightweight frame and innovative technology, the industry faces numerous hurdles before they see the first passenger step foot inside a flying car.
The major issue: huge FAA regulatory, air traffic, and structural hurdles. From a regulation standpoint, there is no doubt that the U.S. FAA and the Department of Homeland Security will not permit VTOL’s flying over any major city. During a recent Wired interview, when asked about certification roadblocks, Ehang’s CFO Shang Hsiao said, “because the 184 AAV represents an entirely new category of technology, there are regulations and agencies that are still catching up. We are in unchartered waters and are working closely with government agencies across the planet to develop and regulate the future of transportation.”
The second obstacle, just like FAA regulations, is the safety of VTOL’s. They have a dark history, to say the least. Tested by both the U.S. Marines and Air Force, the initial flights of the military’s popular V-22 Transport flights resulted in 4 crashes and 30 total deaths. It became mass produced 16 years after its first flight. If the military and its access to state-of-the-art aviation technology took some time to get it right, imagine the challenges the private aviation sector faces.
Lilium is confident, however: “We looked into, when we designed the plane, that we can certify the plane with existing legislation,” says Daniel Wiegand from Lilium Aviation in Futurism.
Airbus, out of all of the companies with VTOL prototypes, seems to be the one best positioned to make flying taxis a reality. With extensive aviation experience and a strong history of working alongside the FAA, Airbus, according to a recent Futurism article, is “committed to having its first self-piloted taxi for commuters ready for production by 2020.”
With Airbus interested in starting production in approximately four years, compared to Uber’s official rollout projection of 2026, the airline is poised to set the precedent for the commuter market. According to Business Insider, Airbus’ self-piloted electric VTOL will have speeds two times faster than a car, is capable of flying at an altitude of 1,000 feet, and will have the same tech as self-driving cars. Like the Tesla Model 3, cameras will be strategically positioned for the sake of avoiding objects while in transit. Once again, Airbus’ VTOL is truly innovative but without FAA approval, it’s just a high-tech flying machine built for show.
One thing is for certain: all companies interested in entering the VTOL market need to work together to get FAA approvals. “There are just huge regulatory hurdles, air traffic management hurdles, structural hurdles,” Lovering said, according to Business Insider. “That certainly will require not just Airbus and one other company, but probably a half dozen to a dozen companies working together to solve this problem.”
Thankfully, they have three non-profit organizations (ASTM International, The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, and GAMA) working to establish precedent around autonomous flying drones and VTOL’s. Instead of relying on venture capital dollars to spur an industry, it may be better to build lasting relationships with regulatory non-profits. For they seem to have a pulse on FAA requirements.
Whether it’s Uber’s recently released 98-page White Paper outlining its “Uber Elevate” flying car plan or Airbus’ “Project Vahana” – an all-electric VTOL taking off from building tops – transportation is poised for big changes in the next two decades. However, launching a flying car is far from reality. As the Uber’s head of product Jeff Holden so eloquently put it, “the technology could be in use within a decade, which is an aggressive prediction, given the issues around the complexity of movement in the air above densely populated areas.” In the meantime, new aviation players like Lilium Aeronautics are adding their VTOL prototypes into the mix – making the future of transportation all the more interesting.