Prepare for Takeoff

Electric flight is still in its infancy as an industry, but the technology is similar to that used in e-mobility and autonomous driving. Germany’s SMEs will be the engine of innovation bringing us e-taxis and the unmanned flight solutions of tomorrow.

June 2019

It’s just the ideal time,” says Florian Holzapfel, head of the Technical University Munich’s Institute for Flight System Dynamics. “Three things are coming together: electric motors, autonomous control, and urban area mobility.” If he were referring to driverless vehicles, this might sound like old news, but he is talking about electric flight and its emergence as an urban transport solution over the next decade. Within five years, Holzapfel believes, e-air taxis with an operator on board will be helping to ease road congestion. Californian company Kitty Hawk, for example, has already conducted extensive live tests for its self-flying taxis in New Zealand.

Over the last five years, some EUR 250 million of investment, much of it from China and the U.S., has poured into German small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) working in e-flight. The engine of innovation that is Germany’s Mittelstand is developing a wide range of components for the aircraft.


The speed achieved by one test e-flight within a 300km range

Lilium Jet © Lilium

E-flight hub near Munich

A cluster has sprung up in Bavaria, with several companies developing working prototypes including Lilium, which has attracted more than $340 million in funding so far, and AutoFlightX which was founded in Munich by Chinese Tian Yu, and has R&D centers in Shanghai and Shenzen, China.

There have already been some impressive results: one vehicle flew from Munich’s main train station to the airport in seven minutes; another achieved a 300km range at speeds of 300km/h.


The amount of investment poured into German SMEs working in e-flight

Much of the technology used in e-flying is generic, meaning Germany is well prepared. “Embedded, highly-reliable mini-computing power, communication systems and manufacturing technology are all areas crucial to electric flying,” says Holzapfel. “Energy storage is also better now and diverse technologies such as hydrogen propulsion and hybrid propulsion systems are becoming possible. Everything is becoming safer and cheaper.”

“There is a very high density of innovative tech companies in unmanned flying and urban e-mobility,” he continues. Germany’s ­Mittelstand will play a crucial role, as only they have the flexibility to react to the fast-­changing conditions of an emerging industry. These SMEs offer numerous investment opportunities for companies looking to gain a foothold in this future-oriented business.

As Josef Kallo of the German Aerospace Center said recently, “Electric flying is definitely possible from a technological viewpoint – whether it will be implemented is a matter of investment.”

7 mins

The time it takes to fly from Munich’s main train station to the airport via e-aircraft