Jetsons, meet the Air Force.
The flying car is no longer just the stuff of science fiction. Using innovative materials, energy and propulsion systems, and original design concepts, dozens of firms are hoping to get in on the next big thing in aviation.
So is the Air Force. But rather than seeking to create its own breakthrough technology, the service is seeking instead to help jump-start a commercial revolution that will yield new technologies it can adapt for military use. The Air Force calls the effort “Agility Prime.”
Throughout history, military technology has inspired commercial advances, from firearms that also proved helpful to hunters, to military airplanes that spawned the commercial aviation business. At other times, commercial advances have spawned military innovations; in World War I, for example, the military employed commercial automobiles as ambulances for the first time.
Electric aviation is the inevitable future of aviation.Kyle Clark, chief executive officer of Beta Technologies
Agility Prime aims for a middle ground, in which DOD and the commercial sector collaborate to help new ideas mature for mutual benefit: A future electric flight industry that has potential for both military and commercial uses. But while some hail the concept as a new frontier in defense investment, others caution that playing the role of venture capitalist is a risky business.
The initiative began in early 2020 to explore electric-powered aircraft that could take off and land vertically and fly autonomously when needed. Today, multiple prototypes are in the works. The Air Force aims to see if the concept will “revolutionize mobility” through simple, affordable, and flexible design.
“Electric aviation is the inevitable future of aviation,” Kyle Clark, chief executive officer of Beta Technologies, one of the startups pursuing this next-generation transportation technology. “We’re on the cusp of something super interesting, not just for aviation, but for the whole world.”
Hoping to ditch the “flying car” moniker, the Air Force calls the aircraft “ORBs”—a catch-all term it says can mean “organic resupply bus,” “operational readiness bus,” or “open requirements bus.”
“ORBs could enable distributed logistics, sustainment, and maneuver, with particular utility in medical evacuation, firefighting, civil and military disaster relief, installation and border security, search and rescue, and humanitarian operations,” the service said last year.
In short, the Air Force argues ORBs could be useful for any mission where roads and runways are blocked or nonexistent, or where an Airman or light loads must be quickly moved from point to point. Those in the emerging industry tout how easy ORBs are to fly, how little training is required, and how they could enable flight even for Airmen without pilot’s wings.
They’re also not far-fetched. USAF leaders believe ORBs could be part of the inventory as soon as 2023.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass visited Texas-based LIFT Aircraft on their first trip together last summer, joining then-Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett for an ORB flight demonstration in August 2020. They were guided by then-Air Force acquisition boss Will Roper, an avid technologist and innovation advocate who fostered the growth of AFVentures, a seed-funding investment arm, and AFWERX, an innovation organization that runs Agility Prime.
Barrett explained the strategy nearly a year ago: “The thought of an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle … might seem straight out of a Hollywood movie, but by partnering today with stakeholders across industries and agencies, we can set up the United States for this aerospace phenomenon.”
Last year, the Air Force identified six companies with promising designs: Phenix Solutions, Joby Aviation, Elroy Air, Moog, Beta Technologies, and LIFT Aircraft. Twenty-seven companies have submitted ideas for aircraft so far. In total, more than 250 proposals for eVTOL-related technology have secured $38.5 million in small-business research and development (R&D) funding as part of Agility Prime.
Several systems are at, or approaching, the viable product stage:
- Phenix Solutions’ 7-foot-tall, two-bladed Mono 550 helicopter can fly for 90 minutes at up to 92 mph, and can fly a maximum range of nearly 140 miles.
- Elroy Air’s Chaparral, on the other hand, will “autonomously carry payloads up to 300 lbs, up to 300 miles,” the company said.
- Moog’s two-seat SureFly can travel up to 70 mph for 60 minutes, according to TransportUP, a digital publication.
- LIFT’s single-seat HEXA aircraft can carry a “useful” load weighing around 300 lbs, enough to carry a passenger plus light weaponry or medical equipment. The aim is to fly up to 90 mph, said Chief Executive Officer Matt Chasen.
- Joby in December earned a military airworthiness certification from the Air Force—the first to do so—for its S4 aircraft design, which can carry up to four passengers and a pilot. It aims to exceed 200 mph and fly at least 150 miles on a single charge, according to the publication evtol.com. The S4 is on track to fly under an Air Force contract in early 2021, the service said in December.
“Our partnership with AFWERX and the Air Force has been transformative,” Joby’s Chief Executive Officer JoeBen Bevirt said in a release. Agility Prime “has given us access to facilities, resources, and equipment that accelerated testing and allowed us to prove out the reliability and performance of our aircraft.”
Beta is also on track to reach the same certification milestone with its Alia, designed to fly up to six people as far as about 280 miles. The company aims to start flying from Springfield, Ohio, to the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base in New York—more than a 700-mile drive by car—by the end of March. The journey will be aided by a chain of charging stations along the route.
Two other companies are nearing airworthiness approval, but the Air Force declined to identify them.
Agility Prime’s “air race to certification” is a three-phase path to military certification and potential procurement and will run through mid-December 2021. The Air Force hopes it will provide a long-term model for streamlining flight approvals from both civilian and military agencies.
- The air race is intended to bolster the vertical flight market for three types of ORBs:
- 3-8 passengers, traveling at least 100 miles at speeds greater than 100 mph
- 1-2 passengers
- Unmanned, but rated for a maximum 1,320 lbs gross takeoff weight.
Participants are still studying potential military-use cases and acknowledge there may be missions they haven’t identified yet. Troops throughout the Defense Department are working with the program to suggest how the aircraft could help each of the armed forces.
AFWERX, which runs Agility Prime, is working with the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability group to investigate at least 20 potential-use cases, across five Air Force major commands, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard, according to AFWERX Director Col. Nathan P. Diller. Air Education and Training Command is crafting an operations and maintenance syllabus to debut alongside the airframes in 2023.
“As we get more data on ORB capabilities, we will be able to further refine potential mission sets where these vehicles can add capability to our forces,” Diller said. “We fully expect, though, that as ORBs become more commonplace, we’ll see new and unexpected applications of the unique capabilities, much like we’re starting to see now with [small drones] performing tasks like aircraft inspection.”
Master Sgt. Bryan Rodvold, a command and control expert from the 821st Contingency Response Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., is part of an Air Mobility Command (AMC) tiger team working on Agility Prime that also includes aerial porters, maintainers, and loadmasters. The squadron handles humanitarian aid missions across the world and can get as few as 12 hours’ notice to prepare for a deployment.
The team believes rapid-response forces could use the new aircraft to examine airfield size and safety, and delivery missions, known as “aerial port of debarkation,” or APOD, work. ORBs could also help in “logistics under attack” scenarios, where the military cannot rely on cargo convoys or brick-and-mortar installations. Unmanned aircraft could handle deliveries where it is unsafe for trucks, Rodvold said.
“We could use this technology to supplement what we’re calling ‘last-mile logistics,’ getting the cargo to a more forward … location and deliver aid to whoever would need it,” Rodvold said of ORBs. In a crisis, “you don’t know what the terrain looks like. … There could be flooding, downed power lines.”
Air Combat Command could use ORBs to create a much larger combat search-and-rescue force, though any mission in austere areas would be limited by the availability of charging stations. Air Force Global Strike Command is considering their utility for patrolling nuclear missile fields and other strategic assets.
Rodvold noted the aircraft need more time to mature—today, they can’t yet carry loads heavier than a life-saving medical aid package. Yet, “these drones are going to prove—we hope—that they are more efficient forms of transport in the uncertain environments that we’re constantly going to,” added Lt. Col. Lindsey Bauer, chief innovation officer for the 621st Contingency Response Wing at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.
The wing plans to start using ORBs for small airfield assessment teams or for limited transportation in exercises by the end of the year. Those training sessions will demonstrate what Airmen need to know to operate and maintain the aircraft, and could indicate whether AMC should start adding drone pilots to its ranks.
“What we’re looking forward to seeing is one of the drones or ORBs come down, pick up our cargo, and take it to the forward node,” Rodvold said. “Hopefully that whole process is automated.”
Achieving range, speed, and payload requirements ultimately hinges on battery technology, which continues to mature and has gained substantial investment as electric cars grow market acceptance. In the meantime, the question of whether electric aircraft are a reasonable investment—or just a shiny project named for Transformers—gives some aviation experts pause.
Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst with the Teal Group, says it will take “many decades, if ever,” for electric aircraft to achieve the range and power military applications require.
“Electric propulsion isn’t a capability in and of itself, it’s a means to an end,” Aboulafia said. “What is the incremental change that suddenly makes it compelling? … It doesn’t really strike me as a breakthrough technology.”
He’s open to the idea that eVTOL could be an asset to the Air Force, but suggested this type of technology development seems better suited to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency than the Air Force, and questioned whether the program is essentially trying to recreate the helicopter.
Chasen rebuts that idea, however, saying eVTOL aircraft are safer, don’t require years of advanced training to fly, and need less maintenance than conventional military choppers.
Aboulafia countered that Agility Prime isn’t much different from other military research avenues: the Air Force is putting money toward an idea to see if it pans out. But he cautioned against investing in nascent aircraft, absent a fleshed-out plan for how to use them.
“This gets to the [concept of operations]—is there really communication between the Air Force and the people it’s going to be lifting, that, ‘Yeah, we need this’?” he said. “Or is this just an Air Force tech budget grab?”
Air Force reps argue that investing in ideas that already have a good chance of getting to market acts as an accelerant, enabling the military to potentially take advantage of the development sooner.
Jonathan Wong, an acquisition researcher at RAND Corp., sees it as an opportunity for the military to get ahead of the curve in building a supply chain for eVTOL technology.
“That’s a really challenging thing to manage when it comes to roping in all these big defense primes and their entire supply chains to get on the same page, to get on the same standard, and to work and communicate seamlessly,” he said. “It might be easier to do that when you’re building a supply chain from the ground up.”
It’s also a chance to practice modern digital engineering, by modeling future eVTOL upgrades and potential uses for an ORB fleet, he said.
“I wonder if Agility Prime and some of these smaller efforts are ways where you can expose the acquisition workforce to risk” in a lower-pressure program than something like the B-21 bomber, he said.
Agility Prime is all about keeping up with the pace of innovation. This year, the venture plans to start an experimentation campaign, to secure more airworthiness approvals, expand its small business partnerships, and create an ORB training program. NASA is also looking to piggyback on Agility Prime’s eVTOL research for lunar surface transportation as part of the Artemis program.
Getting the Federal Aviation Administration to sign off will be another hurdle, Diller acknowledged.
“As with any groundbreaking technologies, building the regulatory oversight necessary for safe and effective operations is a challenge,” he said. “Agility Prime is committed to helping the companies achieve their commercial goals.”
Future “Prime” efforts driven by AFWERX will focus on space, autonomy, energy, gaming, digital engineering, supersonics, and microelectronics. As with Agility Prime, the intent is to invest in near-commercial-ready technologies that offer military potential. These include hydrogen fuel-cell power, training software, and satellite refueling.
At least one Prime venture will launch this year, with space seen as ripe for “Prime” treatment because its commercial market is booming, Roper said in December.
“Just as we’ve seen in Agility Prime, where our Air Force missions and our airworthiness process are unlocking a new [eVTOL] market for the U.S.,” Roper said, “our Space Force missions and our spaceworthiness processes have a chance to do the same for space.”
Col. Eric Felt, who runs the Air Force Research Laboratory’s space vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., cited a Morgan Stanley estimate that the space economy could grow by as much as $1 trillion by 2040. That offers plenty of chances to get in on the ground floor of valuable new ideas.
“It has to be an area that has strategic importance, both to the commercial sector and to the government sector,” Felt said in December. “It has to be an area where the U.S. government can actually do some good” and offer its own science and engineering assistance.
Space Prime will look past the launch enterprise to consider less-established areas like a space internet, mobility, space debris removal, and data processing on satellites. The Space Force is particularly interested in dual-use ideas that can reach the market within 36 months.
Other research areas may require more convincing.
“There might be careful consideration and interesting new technologies, but not with an eye on the end result,” Aboulafia said. “A supersonic Air Force One? … You just don’t get the capabilities of Air Force One in a supersonic tube.”
Future Prime branches can benefit from the flying car program’s approach: get early input from diverse stakeholders and hope that momentum and user involvement is enough to get through procurement’s “valley of death.”
“It’s a win-win proposition, but I think the jury’s still out as to whether they will be able to turn this into a real program of record,” said Chasen, the LIFT founder. “I’d like to see … this R&D phase turn into real contracts.”