Forget electric cars: Get ready for electric flying cars
Forget self-driving cars: Flying cars are the next hot thing. Who wants to sort through work emails during their commute in the back of a sedan as it inches through gridlock? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads, to quote Doc Brown.
The latest electric VTOL, or Vertical Take Off and Landing, prototype to spit in the eye of old, fossil fuel-burning cars is the Lilium Eagle, a two-seat eVTOL craft that’s just completed its first round of unmanned flight tests.
Like most VTOL aircraft, the Eagle lifts off vertically and then transitions to forward hover and eventually wing-borne lift. The craft itself features a number of small electrically powered jets front and aft housed in wing pylons, with the front jets serving as stabilizer fins once the craft transitions to wing-borne flight. Both front and rear wings feature multiple small jets — versus two large turboprops on the well-known V-22 Osprey — but the basic flight principles of both craft are closely related.
Lilium’s Eagle prototype uses a number of small jets to produce vertical lift, then transitions to vertical flight and relies on wing-borne lift.
Lilium says the Eagle has a top speed of 186 mph and about that many miles of range on a full charge. The company hasn’t shared many details about the battery or the motors, but at this point, most of the components could be off-the-shelf technology.
In the demonstration video, the craft is piloted remotely, but the prototype can reportedly seat one pilot and one passenger. The company is said to be working on a five-seat version with a greater number of jets and larger wings, one that can operate as an air taxi.
“A large network of small and inexpensive landing pads and central places in cities will allow you to quickly enter an aircraft anytime and fly anywhere you want,” Lilium says. “Leaving the city after a stressful day will soon be transformed into a thrilling ride. By traveling through the air, you’ll be able to avoid time-consuming traffic jams while enjoying a magnificent view.”
Did VTOL technology experience some sort of breakthrough while we were asleep, distracted by playing Minecraft on our phones, especially given how many ridiculous issues the F-35 Lightning has faced with a budget of hundreds of billions of dollars? The tech and the goals of these two types of VTOL craft are very different: The F-35 is relying on much more thrust to lift and propel more mass much faster, using a method that has been around in practical form since the 1960s with the debut of the Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel.
The latest generation of small VTOL prototype aircraft, on the other hand, takes the approach of modern drones to lift a smaller payload (two humans, in the Eagle’s case) to a modest height and transition to forward hover (if not wing-borne flight) to achieve helicopter speeds. In many ways, this sort of technology is overdue, but it’s only now transitioning out of the lab thanks to advances in automated flight technology and energy storage. Batteries now carry enough energy to lift themselves and a couple of humans, while large numbers of very small jets create a dogsled approach to VTOL: many low-powered propulsion sources carry a modest mass at moderate speeds.
Lilium plans the first manned flight in 2019, and a rollout of commercial air taxis by 2025. If you have your Multipass, that is.
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As impressive as this test flight appears, the real test of the tech will be a much longer flight with the equivalent weight of two humans and a usable flight time permitted by the battery. We suspect it’s battery technology more than anything else holding back the development of small electric VTOL craft. A flight time of a few minutes is neat, but it’s not industry-changing.
Is the world finally getting flying cars? The Eagle’s debut comes the same month Uber announced it will start eVTOL air taxi service in Dallas-Fort Worth and Dubai by 2020, likely using craft of a similar size. How close are we to aerial commutes to work? Lilium has a few milestones to achieve, with the first manned flight planned for 2019 after this month’s successful unmanned test. Within a few years after the first successful manned flights, Lilium expects to allow passengers to book flights via mobile phone, with certified pilots doing the flying.
If we’re really on the cusp of the flying-car revolution, it’s not too early to snag that house with the eVTOL-friendly lawn.