USAF Agility Prime Aims To Boost Investor Confidence In eVTOL Market

sabrewing aircraft unmanned cargo prototype
Sabrewing Aircraft’s Rhaegel-A unmanned cargo aircraft prototype will be test-flown under Agility Prime.
Credit: Sabrewing Aircraft

For a defense program with relatively little funding behind it, Agility Prime comes freighted with expectations.

The U.S. Air Force program to help build a domestic electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) industrial base is a lifeline for a nascent market as private capital dries up because of COVID-19. For the Air Force, if successful, Agility Prime could be a model of how to bring defense procurement together with commercial markets to compete with China’s national drive for technology supremacy.

  • U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime aims to boost investor confidence in eVTOL market
  • Prototype agreements will produce vehicle test reports 

“For me, it’s a template for how to take the military market—our entire value proposition, not just our funding—and bring it to bear on an emerging commercial market in a way that accelerates it for all of us, and not just for the military,” says Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper.

Agility Prime aims to tap into existing commercial investment in eVTOL development and, through in-kind support in the form of access to test resources and technical expertise, help U.S. manufacturers along the way to FAA certification. At the same time, the program will seek out opportunities within the Air Force and other government agencies for early purchases of eVTOLs to help ramp up production.

The program has been conceived to avoid what happened in the small drone market, where the Pentagon failed to engage the emerging U.S. industry and the supply chain migrated overseas. Drones made in China by market leader DJI are now regarded as a security risk in the U.S. “Because we were not proactive, the market went in a way that was not to the benefit of our national security or industry,” says Roper.

The value Agility Prime brings to the nascent eVTOL market is more than just funding, he says. It includes access to resources to help manufacturers move quickly through military certification so that the Air Force and other agencies can begin buying vehicles for missions including logistics, base defense and disaster relief, “removing the risk that the market will move overseas,” he says.

“This looks like a model that could counteract the benefits a country like China gets with a nationalized industry base where you’re able to pick winners and losers,” says Roper. “What I like about this is it brings together our national assets—our vibrant commercial ecosystem, private capital, government—but it maintains those markets that have been so amazing at keeping innovation fresh and vibrant.”

joby aviation evotl
Joby has used military airspace to test-fly its eVTOL under a Defense Innovation Unit contract won in 2017. Credit: Joby Aviation

“The Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative comes at a critical time when many innovative eVTOL developers are beginning to fly demonstrators but need support to move forward,” says Mike Hirschberg, executive director of the Vertical Flight Society. As private investment in startups and corporate spending in R&D have been hit by the novel coronavirus crisis, Agility Prime “is an endorsement of the potential of eVTOL technology that should also bolster investor confidence,” he says.

The Air Force has established three “areas of interest” (AOI) under the Agility Prime “innovative capabilities opening” released in late February. The first AOI is for eVTOL air taxis carrying three to eight people, the second for one- or two-person vehicles and the third for unmanned cargo aircraft able to carry payloads of more than 500 lb.

Each AOI has three phases: submission of a proposal or “solution brief,” a site visit to determine funding and testing needs and, if successful, an invitation to submit a prototype proposal. To qualify, bidders must be able to fly a full-scale prototype by Dec. 17. The program plans to award no-cost “other transaction authority for prototype” contracts to produce test reports on the vehicles.

In return for providing access to Defense Department test resources and certification expertise, the Air Force, Marine Corps and other government agencies will get to assess the performance and capabilities of commercial eVTOLs with an eye to procuring aircraft off the shelf for military and public-use missions that have yet to be identified. The Air Force plans to field a small quantity of eVTOLs by 2023, says Lynda Rutledge, Air Force mobility and training aircraft program executive officer.

The Air Force is particularly interested in the promise of eVTOL to provide lower acquisition and support costs, reduced acoustic and infrared signatures, and simplified flight control requiring less pilot training, says Agility Prime team lead Col. Nathan Diller. The missions being studied include transporting ballistic-missile operators to remote launch control centers, perimeter security at large bases, “lateral logistics” by moving packages and personnel between squads, disaster support to civilian agencies and distributed personnel recovery by locating rescue assets closer to combat.

The $25 million provided by Congress for Agility Prime in fiscal 2020 is small compared with the cost of certifying an eVTOL. “When you look across our [vehicle] partners, just to develop an experimental aircraft is $100-150 million. To certify that aircraft is $750 million-1 billion,” Mark Moore, Uber Elevate director of strategy, told the Agility Prime virtual kickoff event on April 28.

But the Air Force hopes that putting these vehicles through its trusted airworthiness program, and the data collected operating them, will accelerate FAA certification while early procurements will help scale up the supply chain. The Air Force goal is to operate 30 vehicles by 2030, says Roper, and the Marine Corps and Special Operations Command are also involved.

By fielding eVTOLs “in some substantive way” by 2023, when Uber plans to begin limited commercial service in its pilot cities, the Air Force aims to “stress-test this new capability in a way that brings acceptance by the public, as well as delivers better capability for the Defense Department, [and] ultimately for the commercial market,” says Col. Scott McKeever, global mobility lead for the Air Force Warfighter Integration Capability office.

A key consideration for Agility Prime is how private investors react to the Air Force working with eVTOL startups. Investors previously devalued companies if they were engaged with the Defense Department, Roper says. But since the Air Force revamped how it interacts with technology startups, the ratio of private to government investment has risen to 3:1 from 0.75:1, bringing more than $1 billion in private money into its programs, he says. “They now raise the value of a company if it is engaged with the Air Force,” he adds.

By providing a boost to emerging eVTOL manufacturers at a time when access to private capital is limited, the Air Force hopes Agility Prime will help avoid a repeat of “the cautionary tale” of the drone industry. The virtual kickoff event, which ran from April 27-May 1, “really came out strong about the need for the U.S. to invest in American eVTOL developers and discouraged U.S. companies from accepting ‘adversarial capital’ from countries like China,” says Hirschberg.

“There are so many challenges with developing commercially compelling eVTOL systems; Agility Prime helps build momentum to overcome them,” says Hirschberg. “If we get Agility Prime right, I hope that it becomes the standard for how the Pentagon engages in all areas of commercial tech,” Roper says.

Register for our latest free webinar on Friday May 15 where Agility Prime Team Leader Col. Nate Diller and Vertical Flight Society Executive Director Mike Hirschberg join Aviation Week editors to discuss this glimmer of hopeful news in hard times.

Graham Warwick

Graham leads Aviation Week's coverage of technology, focusing on engineering and technology across the aerospace industry, with a special focus on identifying technologies of strategic importance to aviation, aerospace and defense.