Leaders from across the U.S. Air Force, joined by Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, underlined the importance of revolutionary VTOL aircraft —and an associated U.S. industrial base — to the future of the military, speaking on the first day of the virtual kickoff of Agility Prime.
Driven in part by the Pentagon’s self-admitted failure to secure domestic production of small unmanned aircraft, Agility Prime is the service’s effort to support massive commercial investment into electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs — and avoid ceding another battle in the “innovation war” to China.
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett spoke alongside acquisition chief Will Roper and many others as a “show of force” from the service, seeking to demonstrate to industry and investors the depth of the Air Force’s commitment to accelerating and de-risking the development and deployment of eVTOL aircraft, both commercially and by the military.
“We want to be very clear up front that there is a path for the military market to accelerate domestic use,” said Roper. “Typically, when we engage with an industry partner, it’s our money — our funding — that is the primary basis of the relationship. But in the case of eVTOLs, we bring a lot of things that are a broader value proposition to this very exciting, transformative technology.”
Instead of large funding pools, which have already emerged from the private sector, the Air Force intends to offer its test ranges, deep bench of engineering talent, safety certification process and even its reputation — Americans trust whatever the service chooses to fly over a stadium — to accelerate the development and certification of eVTOLs in the United States, Roper explained.
“Our value proposition in engaging with electric vertical takeoff and landing systems is to bring those things — our ranges, our certifications — 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,” said Roper. “And every hour we log will build confidence in investors, in companies and in regulators.”
The Air Force hopes to initiate a program of record or make a fielding decision regarding eVTOLs by 2023, according to Natasha Tolentino, Agility Prime program manager, using a series of ‘Air Race’ challenges to lay out mission requirements, get competitors in the air and down-select as aircraft capable of meeting them are identified. There is no strict decision on how many different models of these aircraft the service will eventually procure, depending on identified use cases for various sizes and capabilities.
“Think of these as challenge or demonstration-based approach,” Roper added. “If you succeed, you move on. You keep going down the path toward certification, to being put in production, and being flown for United States Air Force missions.”
Contracting opportunities released through Agility Prime will not feature any defense-unique requirements, Roper added, which is key to the program goal of accelerating commercial certification and deployment.
“I’ve always felt that government, the Department of Defense, and NASA have a vital role to reduce risk,” said Mark Moore, aviation director of engineering at Uber Elevate [UBER], the rideshare giant’s groundbreaking effort to bring air taxis en masse to congested cities worldwide.
“This is bigger than any one company. This is tens of billions of dollars of investment that is required,” Moore added. “If you look across our partners, just to develop one experimental aircraft is $100 million-$150 million. To certify that aircraft is $700 million to $1 billion. These are really, really high stakes, and for both the Department of Defense and NASA to be helping to reduce risk, and to show the breadth of missions that these things can apply to, is fantastic. It really helps the investment community to understand and to stick with this, even during trying days such as we’re going through right now.”
The virtual kickoff for Agility Prime will continue throughout the week.