The US government took a hands-off approach when it came to the development of consumer drones. Now a single Chinese firm, DJI, has cornered more than three-quarters of the worldwide market, and Washington is worried its drones could be a tool for Chinese espionage in US skies.
To avoid a similar mistake and the alarming national security implications, the Air Force’s Agility Prime program has funneled over $100 million since 2020 into another promising but unproven innovation: battery-powered aircraft known as eVTOLs for “electric vertical takeoff and landing,” which a slew of companies are developing for civilian use as air taxis and to haul cargo.
The Air Force has dedicated $3.6 million in its current budget to acquire its first eVTOLs in fiscal 2023. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s a sign of the military’s commitment to the technology. That commitment has helped US eVTOL developers raise billions of dollars and made it more likely that they’ll survive to fight for an eventual civilian market.
“The US Air Force’s involvement attests that these are real airplanes — not toys, not flying cars,” Will Roper, who launched Agility Prime when he served as the Air Force’s procurement chief during the Trump Administration, told forbes.
After decades of soaring development costs for military aircraft, Agility Prime is an experiment to see if the Pentagon can take advantage of cheaper, off-the-shelf, advanced commercial technology. The military envisions using eVTOLs in utility roles to ferry people and cargo far from airstrips at a lower cost than conventional helicopters. Because they’re quiet, they may also be useful to slip troops behind enemy lines and to conduct rescue operations.
The 15 companies participating in Agility Prime include creators of piloted eVTOLs, like Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies, and startups developing cargo drones like Elroy Air and Talyn. The program has provided not only funding but government testing resources and the potential to earn revenue on military sales before the Federal Aviation Administration gives them the green light to launch civilian service.
The Air Force, in a report to Congress this summer, said the program was looking to use that $3.6 million to lease 10 aircraft for exploratory use during fiscal 2023. Moving to procurement is a big milestone in the Department of Defense, no matter how small the amount, according to Roper, who is currently a board member of Beta Technologies. “It’s a different color of money,” he said. Officials with AFWERX, the Air Force tech accelerator that runs Agility Prime, declined to offer further details.
Among the first aircraft acquired could be a small multicopter from Lift Aircraft called HEXA — a single partially enclosed seat topped by a circular frame with 18 rotors. Lift says the craft can fly up to 15 miles and carry a maximum of 300 pounds. The military is considering using HEXA for search and rescue, hauling small loads around bases and emergency response. The company is expecting some form of procurement from the Air Force in 2023, according to founder and CEO Matt Chasen.
HEXA weighs only 430 pounds, and its small size means it’s relatively affordable. The Austin, Texas-based Lift has offered early models as a recreational vehicle for $500,000. By comparison, Beta Technologies expects its electric aircraft, Alia, which can carry up to 1,250 pounds of cargo or four passengers a maximum of 200 miles, to cost from $4 million to $5 million.
Other Agility Prime participants say they’re making progress toward getting aircraft into military service.
Northern California-based Joby, which has received contracts through Agility Prime worth up to $75 million to support R&D and unmanned flight testing, last month investors told it’s in talks to deliver aircraft to the military in 2024 – as it disclosed that it’s pushed back its target date to launch urban air taxi services by a year to 2025, blaming the pace of federal rule-writing that will govern the industry. Its four-passenger electric tiltrotor is designed to take off and land like a helicopter and cruise on wings like an airplane as far as 150 miles.
Chairman Paul Sciarra said forbes that it’s possible the military could start taking aircraft as early as next year, giving the company “a really important release valve to make sure that we have a productive and revenue-generating place for aircraft to go.”
Vermont-based Beta, which is aiming to commercialize Alia as a cargo hauler first, expects the Air Force will buy the craft in 2024 following on-base test operations in 2023. In March, Alia became the first electric aircraft flown by Air Force pilots in a crewed flight, though with a conventional runway takeoff and landing. Beta has received contracts worth up to $44 million through Agility Prime.
An initial test mission which the Air Force is considering for electric aircraft is to move equipment and personnel around its US test and training ranges, many of which are in remote areas with rough roads. Should eVTOLs perform well in that task, it envisions trying them out for ferrying “distinguished visitors” on trips ranging from 30 to 90 miles one-way.
Colonel Nathan Diller, who stepped down as head of AFWERX earlier this month, told forbes last year that testing and training ranges are a perfect “low risk” initial environment, with the bonus that they can replace ground vehicles.
Another basic use: ferrying small parts for repairs that it would be wasteful to transport on helicopters such as the Black Hawk or V-22 Osprey, which cost thousands of dollars an hour to fly.
Another first-generation mission Roper says is a “no brainer” is using eVTOLs for security on military bases, which can stretch for hundreds of miles and are still patrolled World War II-era fashion by troops in ground vehicles.
Down the line, the Air Force is interested in using autonomous or remotely piloted eVTOLs for the risky mission of rescuing downed pilots behind enemy lines. Quieter electric propulsion and the smaller size of some of the aircraft compared to rescue helicopters could give them a better chance of getting in and out without being spotted. “You can send these into higher risk areas without putting life or limb at risk,” Diller said.
Agility Prime brags that it’s helped companies in the program raise $7.5 billion in funding, but as developers move from the prototype phase to the more expensive stage of civil safety certification testing and scaling up for manufacturing, not all will be able to find the money to keep going. Pioneering Bay Area eVTOL developer Kitty Hawk was the first company to conduct an operational exercise through Agility Prime in 2021. Billionaire investor Larry Page abruptly shuttered the company in October amid doubts about whether it would be able to bring its autonomous aircraft to market anytime soon.
Roper believes there will be a healthy civilian market for the winners. With Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall reportedly skeptical of eVTOLs, Roper argues the military needs to recognize that the US competition for primacy with China is mostly playing out in commercial technology, so focusing on how much the Pentagon directly benefits from electric aircraft isn’t the only deciding factor.
“The bigger impact of Agility Prime is that this is an emerging market that’s likely going to be worth a lot in terms of its value, in terms of jobs created, in terms of global impact,” Roper said. “It will be a market with a US ZIP code.”