USAF Explores Novel Technologies Through Agility Prime

Transcend will develop control laws to automate high-speed, nap-to-the-Earth flight to enable safe operation by a nonpilot crewmember.
Credit: Transcend Air concept.

As more startups announce awards under the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative, a pattern of exploring novel ideas through small business contracts is emerging. 

Agility Prime was established to help accelerate the establishment of a U.S. commercial advanced air mobility industry by providing access to testing resources and potential early military procurements.

While significant military orders for electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles have yet to emerge, the Air Force has cast its net wide through small contracts awarded by its AFWerx innovation unit under Agility Prime. 

In most cases, the contracts are small business innovation research (SBIR) or small business technology transfer (STTR) awards to investigate specific technologies that are key features of the eVTOL designs being pursued by startups.

Examples include the Phase 1 STTR awarded to Jump Aero and Caltech to develop an “electronic parachute” to improve the safety of its planned JA1 eVTOL, an aircraft being designed to fly first responders to the scene of an emergency as fast as possible.

The electronic parachute is an adaptive flight controller that is pre-tuned through simulation using machine learning to handle various failure scenarios. The system would allow the JA1 pilot to initiate a rapid recalibration of the controller in flight in the event of damage.

This would increase the probability of a safe recovery without significantly increasing the training burden on the pilot, Jump said. Working with Caltech, the startup says the FAA’s recent approval of Garmin’s autonomous emergency landing function provides a pathway to certification of nondeterministic flight control systems such as its electronic parachute.

Under another STTR, Transcend Air is working with Auburn University to develop flight control laws and simplified vehicle operation for automated nap-of-the-Earth flight. The goal is to enable a nonpilot crewmember to safely operate its Vy 400 eVTOL in high-speed, terrain-contour-following flight.

Startup Ghostwave is working with Lift Aircraft under an STTR to demonstrate detect-and-avoid radar technology on the single-person Hexa eVTOL. Ghostwave’s radar transits pseudo-random radio frequencies to prevent interference between closely spaced vehicles using radar for collision avoidance.

Other SBIR and STTR contracts awarded by AFWerx are looking at topics ranging from thermoplastics for low-cost eVTOL manufacture and compact rotary engines for hybrid-electric propulsion systems to fluid propulsion systems to reduce eVTOL noise.

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.