Imagine some time in the not-so-distant future. After making your way to the nearest community landing strip, you’ll pull out your phone, and, with a single tap, hail the closest air taxi to take you to your chosen destination. The experience will have Uber-like convenience but the mode of transport couldn’t be any more different.
Never again will you need to ask your taxi driver to take the scenic route as you’re flown from one location to another, much faster than by car and with significantly less environmental impact. That’s the promise of the five-seater Lilium jet, a new kind of all-electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) device being developed by a startup based in Munich, Germany, which, until just a few years ago, had yet to come into existence.
“The founding mission of the company was to enable everyone to use this kind of transportation system in their everyday lives,” Lilium co-founder and CEO Daniel Wiegand tells TechCrunch. “We want to be the leading company enabling every person to take a jet instead of using the car and be five times faster to their destination… There’s going to be an app and from day one you’ll be able to book this airplane as a service”.
Despite what you may have read elsewhere, however, day one is still “several years” off, with Wiegand describing the Lilium jet as following a classic development timeline for any new aircraft of its size. That’s not to say that the startup hasn’t made significant headway to date, including a first public and successful flight in April for a two-seater and remote operated version of the jet, which, says the Lilium CEO, didn’t go unnoticed by investors.
Today the company is announcing it has closed $90 million in Series B funding, up from the $10 million Series A Lilium raised a year ago. Backing the round are Tencent; LGT, the international private banking and asset management group; Atomico, Lilium’s Series A backer founded by Skype co-founder Niklas Zennström; and Obvious Ventures, the early-stage VC fund co-founded by Twitter’s Ev Williams.
“When we had the Series A investment, we had an idea and a smart founding team and a promise, basically. In April we delivered that: we have shown a full-scale airplane flying, even in transition from hover flight, so we could really demonstrate this is the best technology in that field and it works. That was probably the key difference”.
In addition to a successful test flight, Wiegand says Lilium has “built up a lot on the company side,” in terms of hiring and processes and growing the engineering team. Headcount now stands at more than 75 people, around half of which are non-German. And just last month, Lilium added a number of key hires from notable companies in the transportation space, including Dr. Remo Gerber, former MD for Western Europe at Gett, who joined as chief commercial officer. “It’s a totally different company than it was one year before,” Wiegand says.
Neither a conventional airplane nor helicopter — but, to some extent, capable of doing the job of both — there are a number of other startups that are focused on the electric aircraft market, including Kitty Hawk and Zee.aero, both backed by Larry Page; and Vahana, backed by Airbus.
The Lilium jet’s party trick is that multiple engine flaps tilt from a vertical into a horizontal position depending on the jet’s flight mode. During take-off, the flaps are tilted vertical to enable the engines to lift the aircraft, but, once airborne, the flaps transition slowly into a horizontal position to enable the aircraft to accelerate until enough lift is provided by the wings alone, just like a conventional airplane.
However, it is the insistence that the Lilium VTOL jet should be solely electric-powered that really stands out and has left some aviation experts sceptical 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.
Asked to elaborate a little, Wiegand says 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”.