Lilium has partnered with multinational infrastructure operator Ferrovial to build out a network of 10-plus vertiports across Florida, expanding on its first planned vertiport development in the suburbs of Orlando announced last fall.
The first location in South Florida will be announced as soon as Spring 2021, according to a Lilium press release, with more to follow as the network expands to cover “strategic locations in all major cities across Florida.”
“Our strategy to bring high-speed transportation networks to an entire region is being brought to life in Florida, and Ferrovial is the ideal partner with their unrivalled expertise in airport construction and operations around the globe,” said Dr. Remo Gerber, chief operating officer at Lilium. “Nearly all 20 million Floridians will live within 30 minutes of our vertiports and the 140 million annual visitors to the Sunshine State will have a high-speed option available to travel to their destinations.”
Ferrovial, an infrastructure operator headquartered in Spain with $10 billion in U.S. assets, conducted scenario planning exercises and concluded urban air mobility was one of four disruptive technologies the company needed to anticipate, along with hyperloop, urban logistics and connected autonomous vehicles. In December, the company signed an agreement with HyperloopTT to study the operation, maintenance and potential routes for the new technology, which uses a magnetic levitation and a linear electric motor in a reduced pressure tube pathway to achieve high speeds with minimal energy use.
Two years ago, Ferrovial approached Lilium to analyze potential joint venture opportunities in the U.S. and UK, Rafael Fernandez, director of innovation at Ferrovial, told eVTOL.com.
“We decided to approach them two years back to analyze together impacts on Heathrow Airport and opportunities outside airports,” Fernandez said. “We decided that building a network in the U.S. would be the more attractive option, allowing us to think big in the future. We’re an infrastructure company, so we are not the ones to develop an aircraft or jet, but we have a big ambition to be the infrastructure partner for those kinds of companies — Lilium and the rest.”
Ferrovial is the largest shareholder in Heathrow Airport Holdings with a 25 percent stake. The company is also a limited partner in UK-based venture fund Atomico, which led Lilium’s Series A investment round and has continued to participate in funding rounds since then, as well as a long-term collaborator with MIT’s Energy Initiative.
Fernandez said the deal with Lilium will be “like a joint venture,” with Lilium operating the airline and Ferrovial managing the hub, making the company responsible for many of the elements necessary to ensure a clean multi-modal customer journey and positive user experience with eVTOLs.
“I think we need fully automated hubs with as little friction as possible for passengers. This is about user experience and attracting demand,” Fernandez said. “And we believe that enabling technologies like 5G, machine learning data, robotics and automation are going to help in the passenger journey. We really care about this.”
In November, Lilium announced Lake Nona — a wealthy planned community in the suburbs of Orlando, Florida — as its first U.S. vertiport location in partnership with Tavistock Development Group. That project is proceeding as planned, a representative for Tavistock confirmed to eVTOL.com, though a nearby backup site has been selected to provide the Federal Aviation Administration with options considering the proximity to Orlando International Airport (MCO).
Florida has struggled to improve connectivity between its major hubs. In 2014, construction began on Brightline, the first privately funded U.S. passenger rail project in over a century, connecting Orlando to Miami and other cities on the state’s eastern coast. Paired with Lilium’s targeted 185-mile (300-kilometer) range to connect destinations where rail infrastructure isn’t economically viable, the state may be better positioned to support the mobility needs of its rapidly growing population.
There’s just one problem: Lilium’s aircraft development program appears to be outpaced by its vertiport partnerships, pilot training collaborations and other initiatives. In December, Lilium confirmed to eVTOL.com that its five-seat eVTOL jet prototype — a design which has drawn criticism from some aerospace engineers for its high power requirements on takeoff — hasn’t flown since February 2020, when its primary prototype was damaged in a fire during ground testing. Lilium did not immediately respond to a similar inquiry for this article.
Since then, Lilium’s executive team has accelerated their certification timeframe, now promising to deliver a series-production jet by the end of 2023. Now, ahead of a widely-rumored announcement that the company will merge with a blank-check company to go public, Lilium continues to expand its vertiport partnerships and promised air mobility offerings, with CEO Daniel Wiegand also teasing the potential for a 15- or 60-seat electric aircraft to German magazine Frankfurter Allgemeine.
Let’s hope the Lilium jet’s pace of development can match the company’s ambitious plans. For now, the German air taxi unicorn’s eyes appear to be bigger than its appetite for flight testing.