Lilium secures $90 million to develop its electric VTOL plane

Steve Dent

Like a few other startups, Lilium wants to make our flying car dreams come true with an electric VTOL craft you can summon with an app. Thanks to $90 million worth of new investment from China's Tencent and others, the startup may now have a leg up on its rivals. It will use the funds to drastically expand hiring in order to take the electric jet into the next stages of development.

Lilium differs from Ehang's passenger drone and other like concepts. Rather than using multi-rotors to both lift and propel it, the craft uses flaps with electric "jets" that rotate from a vertical to horizontal position. By tilting them into a vertical position, it can take off like a helicopter, than rotate them horizontally to transition into conventional flight. That's similar to how Boeing's V-22 Osprey works, for instance, but with many more engines. It also works the same way as NASA's smaller-scale "Greased Lightning" VTOL craft.

Lilium is backed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and has actually flown a full-sized, two-seat prototype, albeit with nobody in it (below). It recently hired engineers and employees from Gett (an Uber and Lyft ride-sharing rival), Airbus and Tesla. The company plans to build a five-seat "air taxi" that could ferry passengers 186 miles at around 186 mph. It has ambitiously planned its first manned tests by 2019, and passenger flights by 2025.

It's going to be tough for the the company to get aircraft approved in the US, however. FAA certification is notoriously difficult, for one thing, especially for an all-new type of aircraft. There's also no current battery technology that can give Lilium the range it wants, and VTOL requires much more energy than regular airplanes. Elon Musk -- who has designed his own electric plane, of course -- said the battery density threshold is about 400 Wh/kg, compared to around 250-300 Wh/kg available in current Tesla models.

However, Ilium seems confident it can overcome those problems via its efficient "electric jet" engines, lack of a tail and other technological innovations. If it can pull it off, it would be a grand feat, and the smog-free craft could definitely revolutionize urban transport. Hopefully, it's painting a realistic picture for investors, because 2025 is just eight years away, barely an eyeblink in the world of aircraft development.

Lilium (PDF)