Think about the inventions that seemed like science fiction in the early 1980s, when I was growing up: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came just 15 years later with the arrival of the Internet and the infinite encyclopaedia that it represents. TV screen phones that would fit in your pocket is of course today that reality called iPhone. And then there are the flying cars of my favourite film, Blade Runner, with the Spinners that rose above the dystopian Los Angeles of the (then) incredibly remote-seeming date of 2019.
We have several flying-car projects in development and engineering teams who want to see them become as ubiquitous as the smartphone, maybe sooner than we think. Earlier this month, Lilium, an aerospace company founded by four engineering graduates from Technical University of Munich just three years ago, had its inaugural flight with the lightweight Eagle electrically powered aircraft which, its founders modestly say, will lead to a revolution in modern life. The co-founder of Skype, Niklas Zennström, is on board as an investor and he’s compared his excitement at watching the unmanned maiden flight of the proof-of-concept vehicle to the breakthrough moment, many years ago, when he used the early prototype Skype command line interface for the first time.
The Lilium jet is an ultra-light aircraft for two passengers powered by 36 tiny electric jet engines. It can take off and land in the vertical. When the aircraft reaches sufficient height, the engines switch to horizontal thrust. Battery-driven and thus emission-free, the aircraft can offer a range of 300km and speeds of up to 300km/h, which could revolutionise commuting: just as Skype offered point-to-point electronic communication between any two people on the planet, the personal aerial vehicle could offer point-to-point travel between any two open spaces within the aircraft’s range. It can be charged from an electrical socket in the home. It can even lift off from your garden.
Several thousand people have already signed up to the company newsletter but the founders hope to reach beyond the usual technology frontier enthusiasts and amateur pilots to the general public who, specially conducted polls show, are quite fascinated by the idea of personal aircraft travel, although there are many obstacles, not just technical, before it is realised. Not least legal issues. No doubt the European Union will be setting up a special subcommittee on the subject soon.
Actually the project is an advertisement for the European Union’s Erasmus programme, whose aim is to create cross-fertilisation of ideas across borders and which has always had a very low take-up in Britain, alas. The idea for a personal aerial vehicle which allows people to fly spontaneously anywhere came to Lilium’s leading light, Daniel Wiegand, while on an exchange programme at the University of Glasgow as an energy engineering student. After a day of lectures about architecture and politics, he came home, switched on YouTube and saw a programme about the US V-22 Osprey, which is able to start vertically. As usual with Pentagon projects, it cost zillions and took many years of development.
Daniel Wiegand was going to cut out all that bureaucratic stuff anyway and was fascinated by the potential for a commuter plane using vertical take-off and landing. Back in Munich, Daniel, who’d become a glider pilot at the age of 14 and designed his own model remote-control aircraft, teamed up with three fellow young engineers and started up a company. They knew the lie of the land and they realised that, in fact, a lot of the technology in terms of materials, sensors and batteries was already available. The company was named in honour of Otto Lilienthal, the German pioneer who inspired the Wright brothers to do their test flights. Lilienthal was the first man to describe the physical laws of aviation and validated his theories by taking numerous flights in personally constructed gliders that looked like the wings of beautiful birds. To this day, aircraft are constructed using lift-to-drag ratios that he helped work out. Berlin airport is named after him.
The four engineers found their engineering professors sceptical as they developed a business plan and eschewed the usual approach of grant applications to the German science bureaucracy.
Instead, appropriately, they visited tech shows in Las Vegas, that city of dreamers and gamblers, but also the European Space Agency as well as start-up conferences in London. They attracted a business angel in the form of Niklas Zennström.
After two years, then, of working out of an anonymous warehouse building in Gelching near Munich, surrounded by a clutter of computers and 3D printers, they have now constructed their first successful proof-of-concept vehicle. Thirty other engineers have joined the company and the company is currently coasting on a wave of positive media coverage from around the world. There are actually a number of personal aviation companies in the USA and Asia, but it is Lilium that seems to have caught the public imagination.
The personal aerial vehicle (PAV) could indeed solve a lot of problems – reduce commuting time, cut pollution, even change where and how we work. Property prices could see a revolution: distance will matter less. What will the city look like in 50 years’ time if personal flight takes off? It realises one of mankind’s oldest dreams and all that. But there is still some way to go, delighted though one is at the confidence of the four young German engineers.
The Fraunhofer Institute wrote recently: “In spite of many advances and visible successes in the form of prototypes there is still great need for research in the area of PAVs until they are actually ready for mass production.”
Although Zennström said at a recent conference that the Lilium flying car is better than drones because with the drones, unlike the winged Lilium planes, propellers have to create lift continuously, you still can’t escape the enormous problem of electrically powered flight: the high battery weight to power ratio. Jet fuel still contains far more energy per kilo of weight in an industry where weight is everything. Much bigger companies have been working on the problem of battery-powered flight for years and even Airbus has only managed to squeeze in 100km range and 200km/h from a 160kg battery in its own experimental two-seater electric aircraft. US companies find it much cheaper to use sidewalk electric drones to transport e-tailing products rather than flying drones.
Then there are training and safety issues: Because you are operating in three dimensions, flying is much more complicated than driving. When a car develops a fault it usually coasts to a stop, while a plane drops out of the sky and gets smashed up. In a recent poll about personal aviation, only third of people said that they be willing to train as long as the 40 hours of flight that the authorities require for a private pilot’s licence. Remotely piloted flying cars or sky taxis flown by experienced pilots may be the next step rather than a Jetsons-style flying free-for-all. Then there is the matter of coordination to avoid mid-air collision between autonomous flying objects: how will the air traffic control bureaucracy have to adapt to cope?
Finally there’s the question of whether there is a market. Every engineer knows there have been brilliant ideas that just never took off because of poor benefit-to-cost ratios or various other issues. But perhaps it will work out, and we can count Lilium’s test flights as a small victory for young engineers with self-belief if nothing else. If they find a market, it will surely be a vindication of technology’s positive effects. In a recent interview with German media, one of the engineers said that the public wanted flying cars and magnetic levitation trains but instead got….Snapchat and the NSA’s PRISM surveillance programme. Who wouldn’t endorse that comment?