Though the visions laid out by the developers of new electric vertical-lift aircraft have been fairly mundane so far—air taxis, cargo delivery—it was a matter of time before someone started sexing up those flying car fantasies. How soon before they appear in a Bond film? When will the military get their mitts on them?
Though the first remains an open question, military interest came into clearer focus this week. The US Air Force, as part of its program to make sure that electric aviation doesn’t go the way of small drones and migrate to China, said it is seeking to work with developers to help jump-start eVTOL technology for both commercial and military use. While the proposal doesn’t come with any funding or direct R&D support, the Air Force is offering to assist the aircraft through the testing and certification necessary for eventual use by military and government buyers.
“From an Air Force perspective, there are these new flying things that are happening and we want to make sure that we are potentially a part of that—if it provides additional capability for our operators and the potential taxpayer savings,” said Air Force Col. Nathan Diller, the leader of the program, called Agility Prime, during a media round table.
This is the first initiative of Agility Prime, launched in the fall to ensure that innovations in electric aviation originate in the United States. “What we don’t want to have happen is the same thing that happened in the small drone migration to China,” said Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition. “The Pentagon didn’t take a proactive stance on it, and now most of that supply chain has moved to China. If we had realized that commercial trend and had shown that the Pentagon is willing to pay a higher price point, we probably could have kept part of the market here and not have to go through the security issues we do now when someone wants to use a foreign-made drone at some kind of Air Force or DOD event.”
Under the “innovation capabilities opening” released this week—essentially a solicitation for formal collaboration—the Air Force is offering its expertise in manufacturing strategies, such as knowing what techniques are best suited for different materials, and in ensuring the aircraft are fully tested and ready for certification. It also would help to make sure they have proper safety systems and are vetted for potential military applications. Funding support isn’t necessary because there’s already plenty of commercial investment in the field, Diller said.
Initially the Air Force sees the potential for the aircraft to be integrated into support roles, such as the same mundane air taxi and cargo delivery visions commercial developers are pursuing. More robust versions might eventually be used in combat or battlefield roles. The solicitation is asking for aircraft able to carry between three and eight people, fly at least 100 mph, for at least 200 miles, and for a minimum of one hour.
“We’ve taken a broad look at how this technology might be used,” Diller said. “Distributed logistics, certainly, and there’s potential for a medical evacuation, firefighting, and civil and military disaster relief. You know, things that you could use potentially across other parts of the federal government and the Department of Defense.”
In addition to making sure that the technology doesn’t move offshore, the Agility Prime program also seeks to convince commercial investors that DOD support for high-tech R&D can be an asset and not the liability it often is seen to be—either because military technologies are too niche or because of distaste for the militarization of commercial technology. At the same time, a stamp of approval from the Air Force could not only result in systems that can be adapted for civilian and military use, it also could help convince commercial companies to adopt and use the new electric aircraft for cargo and passenger flights.
In that case, the advantages of each—innovation and creative thinking on the civilian side and robustness and safety on the military’s—will benefit the other.
The solicitation will remain open until February 28, 2025, and be augmented by specific “areas of interest,” such as certification, the first to be announced. The Air Force will provide contracts to qualified programs, and the initial AOI requires that full-sized aircraft achieve their first flights by December 17 of this year.
The Air Force hopes to begin testing operational eVTOL aircraft by 2023, though there’s no set timeline for when it hopes to place them into service. Similarly, air taxi and eVTOL companies, including Uber, have targeted 2023 to 2025 as the approximate rollout timeline for their services—though that’s a best-case given the unknowns of the certification and safety questions. As for an electric aircraft’s first appearance in a James Bond film, our guess is the next one following No Time to Die.