The Air Force’s Agility Prime program launched in May of 2020 as a technology accelerator for electric air taxis. A little over a year later, the program looks toward how these bespoke aircraft could be implemented in Air Force operations. 

During a panel discussion with the Vertical Flight Society on Sept. 15, Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, Division Chief of AFWERX Prime for the Air Force, said the service could use electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft for transportation, search and rescue, surveillance, and possibly autonomous operations. 

“The end goal, the whole purpose of the AFWERX Prime division, is that we do need to transition to something; it’s not indefinite research and development,” Meagher said. “The idea is to take some new ideas and get them out in two to four years, FY ’23 being our goal for having an initial use case out there so we can get some operational feedback.”

Although the Defense Department may not necessarily use aircraft from all the companies within the Prime program, the goal, Meagher said, is to make all of the companies commercially viable.

“In the end we need them to be commercially viable,” Meagher said. “The DoD is not going to necessarily be able to stand up all of these companies by itself, but we do want to leverage all the advancements and speed that they’re working with on the commercial side.” 

An Air Force pararescue jump (PJ) expert evaluates how to load a simulated injured survivor or “Rescue Randy” into Kitty Hawk’s Heaviside vehicle as part of a personnel rescue scenario. The event demonstrated dual-use capability for civil and government applications. (Photo: Kitty Hawk)

Meagher did not specify where the Air Force could use these aircraft first but said they could be used to supplement airborne assets, fight fires, assist in search and rescue, and do surveillance tasks currently done by drones. 

“They could be for a combat scenario or it could be for disaster response humanitarian type thing,” Meagher said. “On top of that, you could have surveillance capabilities with these that are autonomous…but also supplementing our traditional heavier lift and other aircraft because the majority of the time those aircraft are not carrying their full cargo capacity but they are pretty significant high price point to operate.” 

While some eVTOL companies are delaying implementing autonomous operations for a commercial launch, Meagher said the Air Force is interested in implementing these operations. 

“We have an appetite for both autonomous operations and then crude operations in the future for these types of vehicles,” Meagher said. 

Since launching, Agility Prime has worked with over 20 companies with four of those companies achieving military airworthiness for their aircraft. The program has awarded over $100 million in contracts and the companies involved have seen over $1 billion in commercial investment. 

“We’ve dealt with over 29 companies that have applied, we’ve got four of them flying right now, a couple more in the works,” Meagher said. “It’s been a really good effort to leverage a lot of that commercial investment, commercial capital, and some on the DoD side to help advance some of this technology and see some really fast progress and it’s really exciting to see.”