In the animated comic sitcom “The Jetsons,” which enjoyed popularity between 1962 to 1963, the eponymous family traveled around Orbit City in a flying car. The Space Age backdrop of this series was fun, stylish and quirky at the time, but it has proven to be quite successful at predicting the technological future in terms of digital communications, robotics and several household gadgets. In fact, American economist Jeffrey Tucker once pointed out that “The Jetsons” lifestyle had become a reality in 2011 with the exception of personal transportation. In less than a decade, Tucker’s commentary has come full circle with the advent of tech startups such as Lillium, a German company that is very close to providing a Jetsons-like flying taxi experience.
Lillium’s Vertical Takeoff and Landing Aircraft
In May 2019, Lillium completed a test of an electric aircraft that can sit five passengers. In essence, Lillium’s airborne taxi is a vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) craft that flies in a manner somewhat similar to helicopters. The aerodynamics are quite interesting; the propulsion system is powered by 36 electric engines, and you will not find conventional rudders or even a tail. Testing of Lillium’s VTOL prototypes dates back to 2017, which means that the company is ahead of competitors such as Uber Air. Even though this is an autonomous flying aircraft, Lillium plans to assign pilots when the company formally starts operations in the year 2025, a projection that relies on getting a green light from the European Aviation Safety Agency.
A Competitive Playing Field
Lillium and Uber Air, also known as Uber Elevate, are hardly alone in this race to provide flying taxi services. Kitty Hawk, a tech startup that enjoys powerful financing from Google co-founder Larry Page, has been testing a VTOL taxi in New Zealand since 2018, and it has already completed 700 flights; this is a venture that has partnered with Boeing because it is very serious about developing automated flying solutions. Uber Air is expected to conduct test flights next year, but the company is also strongly focused on providing a fully autonomous service, thereby eliminating the need for Uber pilots.
The Challenge of Heavy Baggage Handling
In the case of Lillium, one major goal is to develop a fleet that can handle heavy payloads, a major concern when you take into account that air passengers will invariably wish to bring luggage aboard. Something that is missing from all these VTOL taxi efforts is the iconic and futuristic sound made by the flying cars of “The Jetsons;” the current prototypes make less noise than electric cars.