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Joby Connects the Dots and Delivers
  • 26 Sep 2023 11:32 AM
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Joby Connects the Dots and Delivers

By Kenneth I. Swartz, Aeromedia

Joby Aviation recently achieved a major milestone in its eight-year relationship with the US Department of Defense when it delivered the first Joby JAS4-1 eVTOL aircraft (N5421A) to the US Air Force for military evaluation and flight testing. Leaders from the Air Force, Joby and NASA cut a ribbon on Sept. 25 at Edwards Air Force Base in Edwards, California, after opening a maintenance shelter for Joby's electric air taxi.

This first production aircraft was built at Joby’s facility at Marina Municipal Airport (on the Army’s former Fort Ord base) in California and received its airworthiness certificate in June 2023. This is believed to be the first "powered-lift" eVTOL aircraft ever delivered to a customer, anywhere in the world (EHang  reported several years ago, "In March 2018, we delivered a unit of our dual-seat EHang 216 to a customer for testing, training and demonstration purposes," followed by many more of its wingless eVTOL aircraft.)

Joby has initiated low-volume eVTOL production at Marina but its long-term plans are to scale production at a new factory to be build at Dayton International Airport in Ohio which was announced on Sept. 18, 2023. 

Agility Prime

The eVTOL delivery marks the beginning of the next chapter in Joby’s partnership with AFWERX’s Agility Prime, which began with a request for information (RFI) from industry on Dec. 17, 2019 — the anniversary of the Wright Brothers powered flight — and publicly launched on April 27, 2020 as a collaborative initiative by the Air Force to accelerate development of the commercial electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft industry by providing financial and material support to private companies for flight testing and aircraft development (see "US Air Force Primes the eVTOL Industry," Vertiflite, March/April 2021). 

AFWERX was created in 2017 to leverage the technological innovation of the private sector to support national defense with a contracting and funding model designed to appeal to the fast paced startup technology sector.

In the years before the program launch, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Assistant Director of Aeronautics Col. Nathan Diller developed in-depth knowledge of the eVTOL industry through his frequent engagement with VFS leadership and participation in VFS events, as well as frequent discussions with industry.

Early in the program, Agility Prime took a four-step Multi-Attribute Tradespace Exploration (MATE) approach to identify potential applications for three weight classes of eVTOL aircraft (which they call “Orbs”), with Joby one of the first eVTOL manufacturers contracted by the Air Force in the higher weight class and it has since benefitted from $131M in funding from the USAF agency with a potential contract value of $163M, the largest in the industry.

Three years earlier, Joby had received its first DOD research and development contract in January 2017. It was from the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx, now Defense Innovation Unit) and opened the door to begin test flying the unmanned S4 (N541JA) — its so-called Generation 1.0 design, with FAA designation JAS4-1 — at Fort Hunter Liggett (KHGT) near Big Sur, California, in 2018.

Most of Joby’s early flight test work, including its larger Generation 2.0 development, was hidden from public view on the military range before Joby’s Pilot Production Line opened at Marina. The company conducted extensive flight testing of both of its 2.0 five-seat demonstrators there, including acoustic measurement testing with NASA.

Edwards Air Force Base

Edwards AFB is 73 miles (117 km) northeast of Los Angeles in the Mojave desert and home of the Air Force Test Center, Air Force Test Pilot School, and NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

This is where the secret testing America's first jet, the super-secret Bell Aircraft P-59 Airacomet jet fighter flew in October 1942 and where Captain Charles "Chuck" Yeager became the first human to exceed the speed of sound flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in October 1947.

Since then, Edwards AFB has had a long association with the development of military fighters and bombers, but the base is also where some of the first evaluations in the United States of the Sud-Ouest SO.1221 Djinn (YHO-1) and SE3130 Alouette II helicopters occurred in the late 1950s. 

Joby is no stranger to NASA Armstrong. Back in 2015, Joby was supporting the Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) wing development project under contract with Empirical Systems Aerospace (ES Aero) and in collaboration with the NASA Langley and Armstrong Research Centers.

The effort successfully designed, built and tested the first full-scale distributed electric propulsion wing system, on a shoestring budget of $1M. The LEAPTech wing was a carbon composite 39-ft (9.4-m) span section with 18 electric motors powered by lithium-ion phosphate batteries. Mounted on a specially modified truck, it was tested at up to 70 mph (113 km/h) on the dry lakebed at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in 2015.

Following on the success of the LEAPTech tests, Joby assisted in the design of the NASA X-57 Maxwell research aircraft that was supposed to be a flight testbed for distributed electric propulsion (see "Lift Where You Need It," Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2016). The challenge of developing a new X-Plane using commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology ultimately became a major program challenge leading to the cancellation of the Joby motor-powered X-57 last summer before it ever flew.

The LEAPTech tests and launch of X-57 development at Edwards AFB were watershed moments in the development of electric aircraft development in the US and provided an important foundation for eVTOL aircraft research and development and subsequent financing.

Flight Test Program

The five-seat Joby tilt-propeller aircraft will be evaluated for at least the next year performing a range of logistics missions on the base by a joint military-civilian team. The Air Force's Emerging Technologies Integrated Test Force (ET-ITF), part of the recently structured Airpower Foundations Combined Test Force, is leading the test and evaluation of electric VTOL technology for future national defense applications. The ET-ITF will work with Joby personnel as part of a collaboration between private industry and the Air Force.

Starting in 2024, NASA pilots and researchers will also work to test the Joby aircraft, focusing on air traffic management, flight procedures and ground-based infrastructure. The research will use NASA pilots and hardware, such as the NASA Mobile Operating Facility, which is a research lab on wheels.

When Agility Prime began in 2020, the Air Force didn’t know enough about the new technology to know where the aircraft could be used in the service. During the past three years Air Force personnel has deepened its understanding of the technology and refined its list of potential use cases. 

For example, the first Air Force remotely operated flight took place in December 2021 with the Kitty Hawk Heaviside, and the first Air Force crewed flight was made in the Beta Alia-250 in March 2022 (see "US Air Force Tells Congress of Agility Prime Successes," Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2022).

Joby Aviation was an original participant at the Vertical Flight Society’s first eVTOL aircraft symposium in 2014 and Col. Nathan Diller, the founding leader of Agility Prime, spoke at the January 2018 eVTOL symposium almost three years before the Air Force program was unveiled, with VFS providing introductions to many of the companies that would later be supported by AFWERX. 


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