SPECIAL REPORT: Electric Engines Propelling Military into New Age of Aviation
Joby Aviation photo
This is part one of a three-part special report on eVTOL technology.
One hundred twenty years ago, Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the aviation revolution off the beaches of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, with the first successful flight of a motor-powered airplane. Decades later, the jet engine ushered in its second age, revolutionizing both air travel and military aviation following World War II.
Today, electric propulsion is powering the third revolution, and the U.S. military is paying attention.
The next revolution is full of futuristic, spidery-looking vehicles called electric vertical takeoff and landing, or eVTOL, aircraft. The drone-like vehicles use electric power to takeoff, hover and land vertically, relying on electric propulsion motors where the power source can either be fully electric — using solely batteries — or hybrid electric — a combination of batteries, fuel-powered engines and generators. The motors are quieter, lighter and more environmentally friendly than the conventional turbo engines used by helicopters.
The concept has taken the commercial sector by storm, with more than 800 designs and counting tracked by the Vertical Flight Society’s World eVTOL Aircraft Directory. The designs and operating methods are as varied as their intended uses, from air taxis alleviating traffic congestion to delivery services gliding across the ocean.
The Defense Department not only has its eye on the technology but formed an entire program around it.
The AFWERX Agility Prime program is a vertical lift program launched by the Air Force in 2020. Designed as a collaborative initiative, the program was built to work alongside industry to swap resources and talent with the intent of accelerating testing, experimentation and ultimately “rapid and affordable fielding” of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, an AFWERX fact sheet stated.
The Defense Department’s interest in eVTOL began with a simple explanation: everyone else was.
The Defense Department needs to be involved early on in the latest and greatest technology, “to not only build up additional capability, but have it to leverage,” Col. Thomas Meagher, AFWERX Prime division chief, said in an interview.
“We want to make sure that from a long-term look, we establish really good, strong leadership in the global market for this technology so that we can utilize it across the DoD … as it matures and as the concepts move on throughout the next couple of years,” he said.
So, what can eVTOL aircraft do for the military?
Exploring what that utilization looks like is the whole point of the Agility Prime program, with potential military applications ranging from logistics and reconnaissance capabilities to low noise levels and affordability. For Meagher, it begins with the versatile design possibilities.
“If you look at the different vehicles that are out there on the market … you can have different aircraft designs, different types of platforms,” Meagher said. Once the electric propulsion factor is in place, the power sources are flexible as well, he added.
Quiet motors have been a loud selling point in the commercial sector, largely concerned with maintaining harmony in populated areas. To the Defense Department, quiet motors could mean dropping troops closer to a target without alerting adversaries.
“The other thing that’s really of interest on the [electric motor] side is the simplicity,” Meagher said. From a long-term operations and maintenance perspective, fewer gear components mean they are not only simpler to maintain, but less expensive.
A full spectrum of potential uses is being explored within Agility Prime’s fluctuating number of use cases — as high as 66 last year, Meagher said.
One example explores the vehicle’s logistics capabilities, such as delivering parts for an aircraft operating away from maintenance facilities.
In such a scenario, an aircraft with lower operating costs like an electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle can “meet those needs for just-in-time delivery,” Meagher said. “That can be something where we don’t necessarily use a larger, more expensive platform to go move that central part to go fix that jet. But maybe we can do something that’s a little bit smaller and cheaper to operate between those locations.”
Not surprisingly, the use cases “that made sense, based on how the vehicles will be developed commercially, aligned with what their commercial interests are,” Meagher said.
Partnering with the commercial industry is “critical” to the Agility Prime program, he said. It is working with 15 companies and “close to 30 contracts,” with “several more” being brought on board, Meagher said.
“Long-term market share for [electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft] will be largely driven on the commercial side,” he said. “And so our program being involved early with industry helps not only inform them on future business opportunities or design considerations for military usage, but also helps us provide lots of lessons learned and … resources, testing expertise, airspace, you name it.”
Agility Prime uses what is called an Initial Capabilities Opening solicitation process, leveraging transactional authorities and funding from Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.
Rather than generating specific threshold requirements, the approach involves what Meagher called “areas of interest,” or a general spectrum of capabilities. The less stringent framework allows industry more flexibility to develop “along their lines, what made sense from their perspective.”
The program has marked a number of milestones with industry partners since its inception three years ago, most recently announcing a contract expansion with Archer Aviation for the delivery of up to six of the company’s Midnight aircraft to the Air Force.
Joby Aviation, a partner with the program from its onset, announced in late June the company had received a Special Airworthiness Certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing flight testing of its first production prototype.
Joby’s contract with the Air Force has reached $131 million, after a $55 million extension in April that included provision of up to nine Joby aircraft, with delivery of the first two to Edwards Air Force Base in early 2024.
They are expected to be the first electric air taxis stationed at a U.S. military base, a company press release said.
One feature of note on Joby’s six-propeller electric aircraft is its 65 decibel noise level. A recording of the aircraft registered as a barely-audible hum against the roar of a 90 decibel helicopter takeoff.
“It’s pretty wild when people come watch us fly,” said Greg Bowles, head of government affairs at Joby Aviation. “They kind of whisper. And it’s pretty weird to whisper when you’re around an aircraft. So, you can see why this is kind of exciting.”
“We’re at the birth of the electric age of aviation. That’s what’s happening,” he said. “This early stage of electric propulsion is going to transform DoD, and they’ve been really paying attention.”
Bowles said the North Star between industry and the Defense Department is “getting aircraft into the hands of the Air Force so they can start to fly and validate the analysis that they have done to show how powerful these technologies can be.”
In addition to industry, partnerships with agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration have allowed knowledge gleaned from the Defense Department to inform the new technology’s certification requirements, Meagher said.
With new technology comes trial and error — a tedious proposition Meagher called both the program’s greatest challenge and biggest area of value.
“We’ve had to break down a lot of barriers, and learning to go out and say, ‘Alright, here’s how we’re going to operate them and test them and then build up on that body of knowledge.’
“A lot of stuff we’re having to generate and learn as we go,” he said. “We need to start to craft ways of not only how we pilot these systems,” but reconsider both testing and engineering, he said.
Scalability will also be something to consider, and it is the key test for the electric vertical takeoff and landing industry, Meagher said. “Can they get their production processes and capabilities down to actually scale these out into commercially viable and viable for government use, and that comes with production.”
The future of the vehicles within the military is an evolving experiment, but Meagher said delivery of the two Joby aircraft to Edwards Air Force Base early next year will be a guiding force in the program’s progression.
“Getting the initial aircraft to Edwards and operating will inform not only the Air Force, but then also the other services” in what near-term operational use could be, he said.
Looking out five, 10, or even 20 years, Meagher said he sees the technology’s biggest impact coming from operating costs.
“I think if you can get to a place where you do have a large number of lower cost-to-operate platforms, they can complement existing platforms where it makes sense,” he said.
Electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft are not meant to be a one-for-one replacement for vehicles like helicopters and large cargo planes, he said. He’s hoping for a mindset shift, where a mix of capabilities and lower operating costs will allow the Defense Department to use vehicles for what they’re optimized to do.
Meagher said one of his greatest excitements with the Agility Prime program has been witnessing “all the different approaches that industry is taking.”
“We want to foster that competition. We want to create the environment that the industry can kind of grow up in and flourish,” he said. “I’m excited to see what the commercial market and the rest of the users expand this out to in the next couple of years.” ND