Agile Change in Air Force “Agility Prime” Launch Pays Off
The Air Force pivoted to a virtual launch of its $100M+ effort to support the Electric VTOL Revolution and made an outsized impact on the public consciousness.
By Richard Whittle
The US Air Force got an unexpected payoff in April from, of all things, the novel coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 led the service to officially launch Agility Prime — its initiative to boost electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft and related technologies — online instead of live. Broad participation by senior military officers and government officials in the quickly organized “virtual conference” showed significant support for Agility Prime within federal ranks. The size of the online audience far outstripped the number who might have made it to a live event.
The Air Force Agility Prime team created the week-long Virtual Launch Event conference using YouTube, Zoom and other teleconferencing and web applications after the pandemic forced cancellation of the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) tech, music and film festival in Austin, Texas, in March. The Air Force originally planned a far more modest Agility Prime kickoff as a sideshow to SXSW, a major event that last year drew more than 150,000 attendees to hundreds of venues. The unaffiliated Agility Prime launch in Austin was to have been a noon-to-sunset event at Camp Mabry, a military installation three miles northwest of Austin that houses the headquarters of the Texas National Guard and other units. But taking Agility Prime online proved advantageous.
The Austin launch would have included displays and demonstrations of eVTOL aircraft and technologies by 13 companies, a speech by Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Dr. Will Roper — the driving force behind Agility Prime — and four panel discussions (including one on university research and the vertical flight workforce that the Air Force had requested of VFS).
Advance registrations before the live event was cancelled suggested perhaps 400 people would have attended, US Air Force Col. Nate Diller, leader of the Agility Prime team, wrote in an email after the online event. The online format opened the door for five full days of events that attracted “over 67,000 views across the week,” Diller said. “We had 57 companies participate as exhibitors in the six-hour trade show, and they directly conversed with 3,200+ visitors. In the three weeks of total prep, 4,500+ people registered to be interactive participants in what ended up being 14,000+ networking connections. Over 550 of those registrants were ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] and Civil Air Patrol cadets.”
The online launch also included on-camera remarks by Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Transportation Security Elaine Chao, US Senators Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), and more than a dozen other top generals and senior executives from NASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The demanding schedules of such senior officials would have made most unlikely participants in Austin — and their online participation showed strong support for Agility Prime at senior government levels. Video recordings of all presentations from the Launch Week, as well as follow-on weekly Wednesday webinars, are available on the official website, www.AgilityPrime.com.
“It is awesome that innovation is not going to be a casualty of COVID-19,” Roper told the conference in opening remarks delivered from a Pentagon office. “The nation is dependent on us continuing to push big ideas for a brighter future, and Agility Prime represents one.”
Agility Prime is an unorthodox Air Force acquisition program that seeks to use rapid contracting authority to foster and accelerate commercial development of manned or unmanned aircraft employing advanced technologies, such as distributed electric propulsion (see “US Air Force Moves to Boost eVTOL Development,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020). As opposed to conventional acquisition programs, in which a military service funds research and development, sets detailed requirements and closely monitors contractors, Agility Prime is set up to provide minimal funding and no exclusively military requirements. The Air Force is trying instead to help developers create products for civilian purposes that the military also can use without its collaboration getting in the commercial developer’s way.
Congress provided only $25M for Agility Prime this current fiscal year, but Roper said the Air Force’s “value proposition” for commercial developers of eVTOLs is to “get these vehicles quickly through a military certification, start purchasing them, start flying them for military missions that will be radically transformed, like logistics, base defense, disaster relief.”
Diller later commented that the service was poised to spend “hundreds of millions of dollars” on eVTOL procurements in the coming years, if warranted.
Air Force Shops First for Three Types of eVTOLs
Under the rubric of an “Air Race to Certification,” Agility Prime plans to assess electric or hybrid-electric VTOL aircraft — whether manned, unmanned or optionally manned — that are designed for civil aviation purposes but suitable for military missions. The goal is to determine whether such aircraft can truly revolutionize air mobility by being cheaper to buy in quantity, cheaper to maintain because they use electric propulsion, cheaper to operate because they incorporate autonomy that reduces personnel costs, and more convenient to use because they need no runway. The program has issued three Area of Interest (AOI) announcements describing three types of aircraft the program initially wants to support. The AOIs stipulate that full-scale prototypes must fly before Dec. 17, 2020.
AOI-1 describes an aircraft able to carry three to eight people to ranges greater than 100 miles (160 km) at speeds greater than 100 mph (160 km/h) with at least one hour of flight endurance. AOI-2 describes a much smaller passenger aircraft able to carry one or two people more than 10 miles (16 km) at speeds greater than 45 mph (72 km/h) with flight endurance greater than 15 minutes. AOI-3 specifies a cargo aircraft “not necessarily designed to carry occupants” with a maximum gross takeoff weight greater than 1,320 lb (600 kg) — including payload of more than 500 lb (227 kg) — that can fly at least 200 miles (322 km) at speeds greater than 100 mph with a flight endurance of at least 100 minutes.
“Our goal is within three years to have these doing missions for the Air Force,” Roper told the conference. “I think that’s very achievable, given the maturity of the technology.” If the Air Force can do that, he added, “I think every flight hour that we log is going to be worth millions if not billions to those companies that are successful in partnering with us early on.” This means as they seek FAA certification for their aircraft for civilian air service — a difficult challenge, experts agree, that passenger eVTOLs must
meet to succeed.
“We’ve got a very trusted safety certification process,” Roper said of the Air Force. “We have a great safety track record. And we fly the most exotic airplanes on Earth. So we’re bringing that to bear. I think that’s going to help commercial markets go faster because we’ll be de-risking all of those initial certifications that will have to happen for domestic use. They’ll be informed by data from us.”
In an apparent bid to make the technology more accessible for the uninitiated, and more captivating, Roper often calls eVTOL aircraft “flying cars” and did in the conference, though very few of the more than 270 machines listed at the time on the VFS World eVTOL Aircraft Directory (www.eVTOL.news/aircraft) are designed to both fly and drive on roads.
Meanwhile, the three Agility Prime AOI documents and the program’s web site call the vehicles the program wants to promote “ORBs,” which conforms to the military’s custom of creating acronyms for nearly every new program or piece of equipment.
“These vehicles, referred to as ORBs, are not drones, cars, helicopters, trucks, airplanes, motorcycles, or SUVs, but might support similar missions,” the AOI documents explain. “Given their flexibility, an ORB could act as an organic resupply bus for disaster relief teams, an operational readiness bus for improved aircraft availability, and an open requirements bus for a growing diversity of missions. 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.”
On May 1, the Agility Prime launch concluded after five days of events that included twice-daily two-hour main sessions and numerous side events. In addition to government officials and officers from every military service, the speakers included eVTOL company officials and investors, experts on the various hurdles the technology must overcome to be adopted by users and accepted by the public, and a panel of educators.
The conference ended with a livestream rollout of an unmanned VTOL cargo aircraft technology demonstrator, the Rhaegal-A, being developed by startup Sabrewing Aircraft Company of Hayward, California (see “Unmanned Delivery Pending,” Vertiflite, May/June 2020). The Air Force recently awarded Sabrewing a $3.25M Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to support tests of subsystems in the Rhaegal-A, a single-wing, turbo-electric aircraft with two tilting ducted fans mounted fore and aft on forward pylons and a “pi”-tail. The full-size Rhaegal-B, De Reyes promised, will be able to lift 5,400 lb (2.45 metric tons) of payload in VTOL flight and 10,000 lb (4.5 t) conducting a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL).
Other companies collaborating with Agility Prime in submissions for SBIR grants, and showcased in the online launch, included:
- Joby Aviation of Santa Cruz, California, which has been flight testing subscale and full-scale “air taxi” demonstrators for years, and whose founder, entrepreneur JoeBen Bevirt, coined the term “electric VTOL” a decade ago (see “The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).
- BETA Technologies of Burlington, Vermont, developer of two eVTOL air taxi prototypes and a vertiport/recharging station concept.
- Elroy Air of San Francisco, California, developer of an unmanned eVTOL cargo aircraft to deliver payloads of up to 500 lb (225 kg) over long distances.
- LIFT Aircraft of Austin, Texas, developer of what its website describes as an all-electric eVTOL “single-passenger wingless multicopter ultralight aimed primarily at tourism and short distance travel.”
- Piasecki Aircraft Corp of Essington, Pennsylvania, run by two sons of helicopter pioneer Frank Piasecki, which has worked with the armed services for years on various rotorcraft, including the unmanned VTOL tilt-duct “Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES)” that can carry various modules for military missions of all sorts, and the all-electric PA-890 slowed-rotor winged compound helicopter.
“First Heat of the Air Race” Begins with Joby and Beta
The Air Force announced on May 29, as this article was going to press, that “Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation, some of the earliest participants in the Agility Prime ‘Air Race to Certification,’ have progressed to Phase III of the Initial Capabilities Opening.” The Air Force said that a successful Phase III can result in “further prototyping, resource sharing, testing, production, and fielding as a launch customer.”
Both companies are participating in AOI-1, with their designs for aircraft meeting the requisite larger seat capacity and higher performance capabilities.
“With the progress of these first two partners, we are looking forward to quickly moving on to airworthiness assessments and flight test this year,” Diller said, “as well as working with other partners in the new Areas of Interest.”
Competition with China among Agility Prime’s Prime Motivations
The US global competition with China is a major reason for Agility Prime and other Defense Department efforts to collaborate with and learn from commercial tech developers, Roper told the conference.
“It is too big of a risk to not be connected with innovators, private investors, wherever they are, because you have to do that to compete long term against an opponent like China,” he said. Worldwide, one of the leading eVTOL developers is the Chinese company EHang. Two leading eVTOL developers in Germany — Lilium and Volocopter — count major Chinese investors among their funders. Lilium’s investors include Tencent Holdings, a Chinese conglomerate that is one of the richest companies in the world. Volocopter’s investors include Zhejiang Geely Holding Group, a major car manufacturer; Geely also owns nearly 10% of Daimler, another Volocopter investor. Another arm of Geely bought Boston-area flying-car company Terrafugia in 2017, and is now developing its eVTOL TF-2A in China (see “Electric VTOL News,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).
Roper told the conference the government wants to “de-risk the potential for this market to move overseas without the engagement of the military as a steadying force” and “not have happen to the eVTOL what happened to the hobbyist drone.”
When small drones began to be developed in the 2000s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) funded some experimental developments but was focused on higher performance machines. Meanwhile, Chinese drone company DJI developed short-endurance electric quadcopters that captured consumer imaginations worldwide, and DJI now claims an estimated 70% of the world small drone market.
“What did the Pentagon do? We watched it,” Roper said of small drone development. “The supply chain quickly went overseas just due to globalization,” he noted, “and now those foreign systems, like DJI Phantoms, represent a security risk to us.” [However, just as important, was the intransigence of the FAA; see “Commentary: Innovation Outpaces Regulation,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2014. – Ed.]
Agility Prime conference panelist Kirsten Bartok Touw, founder and managing partner of aircraft finance and leasing company AirFinance, cautioned the online gathering that private investors “recognize that it is hard to compete against countries like China… where they are funding and helping their companies move forward at a more aggressive rate than we are in the United States.” Touw said eVTOL advocates need to consider “how can we be more engaged in propelling industry forward with a partnership of business and the government” (see “Financing the Electric VTOL Revolution,” pg. 46).
Some eVTOL developers and venture capitalist investors, especially those steeped in the Silicon Valley tech industry, have been somewhere between reluctant and loath to work with the military and its arcane and controlling acquisition system in the past. Two years ago, Roper said, “I couldn’t get those kinds of entities to return a call. We just simply didn’t have a relationship with them.” But with the new approach reflected in Agility Prime, he declared, “we’ve completely changed the game with how you work with us in commercial tech. We help you become a successful commercial company.”
In the face of the world economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, that help may take on increasing importance for the fledgling eVTOL industry.
About the Author
Richard Whittle, author of The Dream Machine: The Untold History of the Notorious V-22 Osprey (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution (Henry Holt and Company, 2014), is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and a frequent contributor to Vertifite.