Flying Car Developers Get a Boost From the Air Force

Though the visions laid out by the developers of new electric vertical-lift aircraft have been fairly mundane so far—air taxis, cargo delivery—it was a matter of time before someone started sexing up those flying car fantasies. How soon before they appear in a Bond film? When will the military get its mitts on them?

Though the first remains an open question, military interest came into clearer focus this week. The US Air Force, as part of its program to make sure that electric aviation doesn’t go the way of small drones and migrate to China, said it is seeking to work with developers to help jump-start electric-powered vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) technology for both commercial and military use. While the proposal doesn’t come with any funding or direct R&D support, the Air Force is offering to assist the aircraft through the testing and certification necessary for eventual use by military and government buyers.

“From an Air Force perspective, there are these new flying things that are happening, and we want to make sure that we are potentially a part of that—if it provides additional capability for our operators and the potential taxpayer savings,” said Nathan Diller, an Air Force colonel and the leader of the program, called Agility Prime, during a media round table.

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This is the first initiative of Agility Prime, launched in the fall to ensure that innovations in electric aviation originate in the US. “What we don’t want to have happen is the same thing that happened in the small drone migration to China,” said Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition. “The Pentagon didn’t take a proactive stance on it, and now most of that supply chain has moved to China. If we had realized that commercial trend and had shown that the Pentagon is willing to pay a higher price point, we probably could have kept part of the market here and not have to go through the security issues we do now when someone wants to use a foreign-made drone at some kind of Air Force or DOD event.”

Under the “innovation capabilities opening” released this week—essentially a solicitation for formal collaboration—the Air Force is offering its expertise in manufacturing strategies, such as knowing what techniques are best suited for different materials, and in ensuring the aircraft are fully tested and ready for certification. It also would help to make sure they have proper safety systems and are vetted for potential military applications. Funding support isn’t necessary because there’s already plenty of commercial investment in the field, Diller said.

The Air Force sees the initial potential for the aircraft to be integrated into support roles, such as the same mundane air taxi and cargo delivery visions commercial developers are pursuing. More robust versions might eventually be used in combat or battlefield roles. The solicitation is asking for aircraft able to carry three to eight people and fly at least 100 mph, for at least 200 miles, and for a minimum of one hour.

“We’ve taken a broad look at how this technology might be used,” Diller said. “Distributed logistics, certainly, and there’s potential for a medical evacuation, firefighting, and civil and military disaster relief. You know, things that you could use potentially across other parts of the federal government and the Department of Defense.”

In addition to making sure that the technology doesn’t move offshore, the Agility Prime program also seeks to convince commercial investors that DOD support for high-tech R&D can be an asset and not the liability it often is seen to be—either because military technologies are too niche or because of distaste for the militarization of commercial technology. At the same time, a stamp of approval from the Air Force could not only result in systems that can be adapted for civilian and military use but also could help convince commercial companies to adopt and use the new electric aircraft for cargo and passenger flights.

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