U.S. Air Force Agility Prime Tackles eVTOL Airspace, Infrastructure

Joby will deliver and operate nine S4 eVTOLs for U.S. Air Force logistics missions.

Credit: Joby Aviation

As it moves toward deployment of the first electric- vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft on military bases, the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program has established airspace innovation and battery energy storage teams to address airspace integration and charging infrastructure challenges.

The airspace team has partnered with NASA and the FAA to set up a proving ground at Duke Field, Florida, equipped with a federal uncrewed traffic management (UTM) system. Providers of services for urban air mobility (PSUs) will be able to connect to the system to conduct trials using the providing ground, says Lt. Col. John “Wasp” Tekell, Agility Prime program lead.

Agility Prime plans to bring multiple eVTOL aircraft developers to the proving ground and provide them with an opportunity to connect with PSUs to perform initial airspace integration work, Tekell said May 17 at the Vertical Flight Society’s Forum 79 conference in West Palm Beach, Florida.

The energy storage team is focused on the charging requirements for eVTOLs and particularly a deployable energy infrastructure. “There is a lot of [Defense Department] collaboration in this space, but the previous focus has been on base microgrids. We’ve brought the energy capabilities for electric vehicles to the table,” he said.

Launched in 2019, Agility Prime has so far awarded contracts to 23 companies totaling more than $100 million, Tekell said. The program most recently awarded Joby Aviation a $55 million contract extension to deliver and operate nine S4 tiltprop eVTOLs for logistics missions. The first two are expected to be delivered to Edwards AFB, California, in early 2024.

The program is also working with Archer Aviation, Beta Technologies, Elroy Air, Moog, Wisk and others. “We have some interesting plans coming for the Beta aircraft,” Tekell said, while the first flight of Elroy’s Chaparral hybrid-electric uncrewed cargo eVTOL is expected soon. Moog has been conducting uncrewed flight tests of the Surefly eVTOL acquired from Workhorse Group.

As the first generation of eVTOLs move toward FAA certification and into production, Agility Prime is turning its attention to the second generation of vehicles and capabilities including hybrid-electric propulsion, detect-and-avoid systems and beyond-visual-of-line-of-sight operations, he said.

The Prime division of the Air Force’s AFWerx innovation unit has also established the Autonomy Prime program to engage nontraditional companies in developing autonomous flight technology for Air Force platforms.

Autonomy Prime is establishing a proving ground at Eglin AFB, Florida, that will be equipped with Group 2 and 3 uncrewed aircraft systems and larger crewed aircraft that will be used as testbeds for autonomy technology. The testbeds will be equipped with an isolation compute layer that will enable companies to load their software onto a platform and rapidly conduct autonomy flight testing.

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.