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Joby Delivers
  • 20 Nov 2023 04:09 PM
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Joby Delivers

By Kenneth I. Swartz
Vertiflite, Nov/Dec 2023

With recent major announcements on deliveries, production factory plans and flight testing, Joby continues its steady progress towards entry into service.

Most of today’s leading American electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft companies spent their formative years working in secret with the companies’ milestones and achievements rarely, if ever, publicized. Like the Wright Brothers’ early obsession with secrecy, pioneering eVTOL developers hid their work from the public and competitors, but now, companies like Joby Aviation, Inc. are making frequent media announcements. This was certainly the case this fall when Joby reported significant funding, manufacturing, flight testing and customer announcements.

Although Joby presented its early two-seat S2 design at the Vertical Flight Society’s first Electric VTOL Symposium in 2014 — and briefed its four-seat S4 concept the following year — they soon went dark as they saw other companies become more competitive. The company clandestinely tested its subscale and full-scale eVTOL aircraft in a retired limestone quarry near its Bonny Doon headquarters in the redwood forests near the Pacific Ocean, and later in the restricted military air space of US Army Garrison Fort Hunter Liggett (KHGT) some 90 miles (150 km) southeast in southern Monterey Country.

Joby’s first pre-production prototype (N542AJ) flew at 11,000 ft (3,350 m) on Feb. 1, 2022, with a special landing gear for high-speed testing. The aircraft was lost in an accident a few weeks later.

Joby signed its first Department of Defense (DoD) research and development contract in January 2017 with the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx, now Defense Innovation Unit), which gave it access to Fort Hunter Liggett airspace in 2018. This is where Joby began test flying the uncrewed S4 (N541JA) — its so-called Generation 1.0 design — with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) designation JAS4-1.

After initial hover tests began in late 2019 in Bonny Doon, Joby’s first full-scale pre-production prototype JAS4-2 (N542AJ) was airlifted to Fort Hunter Liggett beneath a chartered Bell 205A-1 helicopter on July 7, 2020. The aircraft commenced flight tests under its own power later that same summer.

Over the next 18 months, Joby expanded the flight envelope of this aircraft, transitioning from vertical to cruise flight and later achieving a speed of 205 mph (330 km/h) at altitudes up to 11,000 ft (3,353 m). The first prototype was lost on Feb. 16, 2022, when a component failed after a series of high-speed turns and a record speed of 275 mph (442 km/h) — well above its design speed (see “Pushing the Envelope: Joby Aviation in 2022,” Vertiflite, March/April 2022). By this time, the second prototype (N542BJ) had already begun flight testing, so the disruption in flight testing was relatively brief.

Meanwhile, in early 2020, a $450M investment by lead shareholder Toyota established Joby as the first eVTOL industry “unicorn” — a startup with a market valuation of more than $1B — and accelerated the company’s aircraft development and manufacturing efforts. Joby unveiled the second pre-production prototype at a Wall Street celebration on Aug. 11, 2021, when its stock started publicly trading on the New York Stock Exchange following its special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) merger with Reinvent Technology Partners.

Marina Municipal Airport

While it was still operating in “stealth mode,” Joby began setting up shop at Marina Municipal Airport (KORD), about 34 miles (54 km) south of Bonny Doon, in August 2018 when it signed leases for two buildings totaling about 74,000 ft² (6,875 m²). The airport has a single 3,483-ft (1,062-m) runway.

Originally known as Fritzsche Army Airfield serving the nearby Fort Ord, the airport transitioned to civilian use in 1995 when Fort Ord was closed as part of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process; its units were relocated to Fort Lewis, Washington.

In December 2019, Joby received approval from the City of Marina to construct an initial 55,000-ft² (5,100-m²) structure at the airport, as well as to erect a “temporary” 450-ft long by 120-ft wide (137 by 36.5-m) climate-controlled fabric-covered building (called the “Mega Tent”) as an initial Pilot Production Line to accelerate manufacturing operations. (A gallery of VFS photos of the Marina site is posted at https://gallery.vtol.org/album/HRKx.)

Development applications were filed with the FAA and the State of California for the “Joby Aviation Manufacturing Facility” at Marina to be built on a 25.7-acre (10.4-hA) site on the airport tarmac that would house a single-story, 580,000-ft² (235,000-m²) steel building that was 41 ft (12.5 m) high, according to a study prepared by the City of Marina in January 2020. Proposed factory operations would include manufacturing, composite fabrication, assemblage of aircraft, parts testing, and research and development, with the manufacturing process including aircraft part layup, oven curing, trimming, adhesive bonding and painting.

The Pilot Production Line in Marina is seen here this past summer making the major structural components of a future production aircraft.

Joby envisioned building the facility all at once or in two phases (290,000 ft² per phase), with space also allocated for “3D printing, assembly, paint, offices and meeting space, shipping and receiving, a kitchen/cafeteria area, a lobby/main entry… with five loading docks for large trucks, two loading bays for smaller delivery vehicles, and two-level loading areas for various types of smaller vehicles.”

The Marina site would include aircraft testing and integration as well as the use of taxiways and remote test areas at the airport for propulsion testing, antenna performance testing, acoustics measurement testing, hover testing and flight testing. The study stated: “if the project is phased, Phase 1 would include two to five flights out of the Airport per day, including helicopter flights. At final build-out, approximately 10-20 company flights out of Airport per day would occur, plus 10 or more helicopter flights per day.” Joby has mainly used Robinson R44 and R66 helicopters as chase aircraft for the past few years.

The study reported operations would occur 24 hours per day and seven days per week, with three shifts of 500 to 600 people each, in what was expected to be a highly automated factory.

Joby said in its 2022 year-end report that it had completed the construction of its California production facilities in San Carlos (for the powertrain and electronics) and Marina (for the aircraft). The report stated that the 130,000-ft² (12,100- m²) facility in Marina “was designed with support from our partners at Toyota, and will be used to validate and certify our manufacturing processes. This approach enables us to prove-out scalable technologies before making the sizeable investments required for higher-volume production.”

In February 2022, Joby announced that final assembly of its first production prototype Joby JAS4-1 (N5421A) had begun in Marina and that it was “actively evaluating” responses from sites in several states to support the construction of the company’s Phase 1 production facility.

After it achieves FAA certification in 2025, Joby plans to launch its aerial ride-sharing service, which will provide flights seamlessly through its own app, via Uber or as an airport shuttle when booking flights with Delta Air Lines, beginning in the New York and Los Angeles markets.

New Dayton Airport Factory

As the eVTOL revolution gained momentum, a number of communities stepped forward with tax credits and economic incentives to secure new eVTOL manufacturing jobs for their citizens. TechCrunch reported in August that Joby was weighing offers from sites in four states, including Marina Municipal Airport, the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport in Detroit, and airports in North Carolina and Ohio. TechCrunch said Joby then shortlisted sites in North Carolina and Ohio.

Toyota’s Kazuhiro Sato and Joby’s Jordin Gischler with a completed outboard propeller tilt actuator, manufactured at Joby’s San Carlos production facility with key parts supplied by Toyota.

On Sept. 18, Joby announced that its first large-scale production facility would be in Dayton, Ohio. The 140-acre (56.7hA) site adjacent to Dayton International Airport will initially contain a factory capable of building up to 500 aircraft per year. But the parcel contains enough land for Joby to expand to 2 million ft² (185,800 m²) of manufacturing space to meet future market requirements. Joby will lease existing nearby buildings to begin near-term operations before breaking ground for the new greenfield production plant next year.

Joby’s long-term investor, Toyota, which worked with Joby on the design and successful launch of the company’s Pilot Production Line at Marina, plans to continue to advise Joby as it prepares for scaled production.

The Dayton area is also home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the US Air Force Research Laboratories headquarters, which has been pivotal in supporting Joby’s progress through AFWERX’s Agility Prime program. Joby’s arrival will continue the city’s legacy of aviation innovation launched by the Wright Brothers, who invented the first powered aircraft in Dayton (which flew on Dec. 17, 1903, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina). The Wright family lived and worked in Dayton and opened the first airplane factory in the US there in 1910.

Joby has unveiled plans for its first mass production facility in Dayton, Ohio.

An investment of up to $500M by Joby — bolstered by additional benefits and incentives valued at a maximum of $325M from the state of Ohio and other state and local agencies — will create up to 2,000 new jobs and support future growth, Joby’s announcement said. Joby said it was also invited by the US Department of Energy to submit an application for financing under the Title XVII Loan Guarantee Program, which provides access to low-interest loans for clean energy projects and would support the scaling of the facility.

Joby hasn’t disclosed the size of its initial factory in Dayton, but the facility will probably be based on the 580,000-ft² (53,900- m²) design first proposed for Marina. As a benchmark, the Robinson Helicopter Corporation factory in Torrance, California, is 618,000 ft² (57,400 m²), employs 1,000 people and delivered 258 helicopters last year, but has delivered as many as 893 helicopters in a single year (2008).

Several other eVTOL developers — notably Archer, Beta, Lilium and Volocopter — have also made recent factory announcements.

Hiring at Joby’s Ohio facility will begin in the coming months, “with early roles expected to focus on the build out of the scaled facility and the machining of parts that will initially be incorporated into Joby’s California low-volume production line,” Joby said in materials provided to Vertiflite.

Meanwhile, the City of Marina announced in late September support for Joby’s submission for a $9M CalCompetes grant to support construction of a new 200,000-ft² (18,580-m²) building at Marina Airport that would increase production capacity to more than 50 eVTOL aircraft a year.

First Air Force Delivery

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 held the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a maintenance shelter for Joby’s electric air taxi on Sept. 25 at Edwards Air Force Base, California.

Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, with (L-R): Ohio Lt. Governor Jon Husted and Governor Mike DeWine, at the Dayton production plant announcement.

This is believed to be the first winged, powered-lift eVTOL aircraft ever delivered to a customer, anywhere in the world (EHang stated in 2019 that it had delivered its first wingless “dual-seat EHang 216 to a customer for testing, training and demonstration purposes” in March 2018).

“We’re proud to join the ranks of revolutionary aircraft that first demonstrated their capabilities at Edwards Air Force Base, including the first American jet fighter, the first supersonic aircraft, and many others that have pushed the boundaries of aviation technology,” said JoeBen Bevirt, Founder and CEO of Joby.

“This next step of getting Air Force pilots trained and operating Joby aircraft at an Air Force installation is an incredibly important milestone for the program, providing key insights to actual operations and use-case validation for Advanced Air Mobility aircraft,” Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, Agility Prime Division Lead, said in a statement. “Additionally, the Joby operations provide an outstanding opportunity for accelerated learning with the other Department of Defense services and government agencies, including NASA and the FAA.”

At least two Joby aircraft will be delivered to Edwards by 2024, with up to seven additional aircraft to be allocated to the Air Force and other federal agencies at locations not yet specified.

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’ first powered flight. It was publicly launched on April 27, 2020, as a collaborative initiative by the Air Force to accelerate development of the commercial 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 three years before the program launch, US Air Force Lt. Col. Nathan Diller, then with the Joint Staff J8, developed in-depth knowledge of the eVTOL industry through his frequent engagement in VFS events. He was a kick-off speaker at the January 2018 Electric VTOL Symposium, and met VFS leadership frequently to learn about the nascent eVTOL industry and develop the Agility Prime strategy. VFS met with many of the companies that would later be supported by AFWERX, after (then) Col. Diller became the founding leader of Agility Prime, and later the AFWERX commander.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the delivery of the first production prototype (N5421JA) to Edwards AFB and the opening of a maintenance shelter for Joby’s air taxis. (US Air Force photo)

Since 2020, the Air Force has deepened its understanding of the technology and refined its list of potential use cases. For example, the Air Force’s first remotely operated eVTOL 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).

In Summer 2021, Joby installed a flight simulator in its new office in Washington, DC, and in February 2022, deployed the first of two simulators to Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas, where the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) had established Detachment 62 to develop curriculum, drive operator certification standards and train eVTOL operators.

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 called “Orbs”). Joby was one of the first eVTOL manufacturers contracted by the Air Force in the higher weight class and it has since benefitted from $131M from the service with a potential contract value of $163M, the largest in the industry. As part of the third extension of the agreement in April 2023 worth $55M, Joby announced that it will deliver and operate up to nine aircraft for the Air Force. Joby stated it will retain ownership of the aircraft while providing military pilots with flight training.

Flight Testing

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 of America’s first jet, the Bell Aircraft P-59 Airacomet jet fighter, began in October 1942, and where Captain Charles “Chuck” Yeager, flying the rocket-powered Bell X-1 in October 1947, became the first human to exceed the speed of sound. 

Since then, Edwards AFB has had a long association primarily with the development of military fighters and bombers, but there has also been some helicopter and VTOL flight test work there in the past, such as the first Air Force evaluations of the French Sud-Ouest SO.1221 Djinn (YHO-1) and SE3130 Alouette II turbine helicopters in the late 1950s.

US Air Force pilots have trained to fly the Joby aircraft in the simulator and piloted the second pre-production prototype (N542BJ) from the ground (shown) in Marina. (US Air Force photo))

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. This will include transporting people and cargo, as well as potentially trailing medical evacuations. The Air Force’s Emerging Technologies Integrated Test Force (ET-ITF), part of the recently established Airpower Foundations Combined Test Force, is leading the test and evaluation of eVTOL 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.

Joby is no stranger to Edwards AFB. In 2015, Joby supported the Leading Edge Asynchronous Propeller Technology (LEAPTech) wing development project under contract with Empirical Systems Aerospace (ES Aero) and in collaboration with NASA’s 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, the wing 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), supplying some of its early electric motors. The challenge of developing a new X-Plane using commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology ultimately became a major program issue, leading to the cancellation of the X-57 last summer before it ever flew.

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

Joby Chief Test Pilot Buddy Denham about to ground taxi the second pre-production prototype (N542BJ) in Marina. This photo shows the cockpit layout with the side-arm controller.

As part of NASA’s AAM National Campaign, NASA and Joby joined forces in September 2021 to study the acoustic signature of the Joby eVTOL aircraft. In September 2021, NASA conducted two weeks of acoustic measurement testing of the eVTOL aircraft at Joby’s flight test facility at Fort Hunter Liggett. NASA’s Mobile Acoustics Facility was used, with more than 50 pressure ground-plate microphones placed in a grid array as the aircraft flew different flight profiles.

Next year, NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center’s pilots and researchers will also test the Joby eVTOL aircraft at Edwards, 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, a research lab on wheels.

A week after the delivery announcement, Joby also revealed that four of its test pilots had flown its pre-production prototype eVTOL aircraft in September as part of the company’s first indepth flight test campaign with a pilot on board. Prior to this pilot-on-board milestone, nearly all Joby flights were remotely piloted from a ground control station (GCS). Flying largely or completely without anyone onboard has been a common approach for all eVTOL developers (with the notable exception of Beta Technologies), which means the world’s population of eVTOL pilots is still very small.

Joby’s Chief Test Pilot James “Buddy” Denham made onboard hover check-out flights with the first 2.0 pre-production prototype, N542AJ, in 2020-2022. But transition flights were all flown without anyone onboard.

This fall, he and three additional pilots flew the aircraft while onboard. A 36-year veteran of Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), Denham led the research and development of the joint US-UK Unified Control Concept that was successfully integrated into the F-35B and has flown more than 60 aircraft types. Several years ago, Joby selected the Unified Control Concept for its eVTOL aircraft, leveraging its successful deployment on the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the F-35 fighter. “Having helped design and test flight controls for a wide variety of aircraft, including all three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, nothing compares to the simplicity and grace of the Joby aircraft,” said Denham.

Peter “Wizzer” Wilson is Joby’s Flight Standards and Training Lead. He’s a veteran of the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy (where he flew the Sea Harrier on exchange) and was the Lead Test Pilot for the F-35B program at BAE Systems, which is a partner with Lockheed Martin on the development, manufacturing and integration of the STOVL fighter.

Zach Reeder is Joby’s Aircraft Staff Project Engineer. He joined the company in 2019 after 14 years at Scaled Composites. He has flown 71 types of aircraft and plays a key role in the design, maintenance and flight testing of our aircraft.

Brian “Mandy” Jacobs joined Joby in 2022 as a test pilot after 12 years of service in the US Navy, including a tour with Air Test and Evaluation Squadron VX-31. He’s made over 300 carrier landings in the F/A-18E Super Hornet.

Korean Collaboration

Joby has teamed up with one of South Korea’s largest private business conglomerates to jointly participate in the K-UAM Grand Challenge. K-UAM Grand Challenge is a large-scale demonstration program launched by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) to test the safety and suitability of urban air mobility (UAM) in an urban environment and to support the commercialization of UAM by 2025.

Jack Reeder in the air in Marina. Four Joby test pilots have now flown the second pre-production prototype (N542BJ). Denham made hover tests with the first pre-production prototype (N542AJ) in 2019.

Building on a $100M strategic investment by SK Telecom in Joby in June 2023, the two companies will combine their expertise and resources to undertake flight testing that is designed to support the development of the UAM sector in Korea.

SKT and Joby are part of the K-UAM Dream Team Consortium. The consortium announced its intent to participate in the K-UAM Grand Challenge in February 2023, signing a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Korea’s MOLIT. The consortium is comprised of nearly 50 companies with a wide range of world-class partners, including Korea Airports Corporation, Hanwha Systems and Tmap Mobility.

The first phase of the Grand Challenge program will take place at a flight-testing site in Goheung, Jeollanam-do, Korea. SKT and Joby Aviation plan to use Joby’s aircraft to conduct flight tests in various scenarios to check the integrated operation of the UAM system and measure the aircraft’s acoustic footprint. Joby will dispatch a flight test team to Korea to support the testing. Joby also recently signed an agreement to explore the possibility of offering air taxi services in and around the Korean resort island of Jeju.

Hydrogen Electric Propulsion

Joby has recently started to take more public credit for the achievements of its Stuttgart, Germany, based subsidiary H2FLY, which is developing zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell propulsion systems for aircraft.

In April 2021, Joby secretly bought H2FLY, founded in 2014 to develop a zero-emissions hydrogen fuel cell system. Five founders, led by Prof. Joseph Kallo, established the company as a spin off from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the University of Ulm. Joby’s purchase of H2FLY was unknown until June 2022, but hydrogen now figures prominently in founder Bevirt’s public talks.

Their unique Pipistrel HY4 flight testbed — utilizing two Taurus G4 fuselages, it's the same aircraft that Pipistrel developed to win the NASA/Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation Green Flight challenge in 2011 — became the first piloted aircraft powered by fuel cells in 2016. In April 2022, the demonstrator completed a 77-mile (124-km) flight across Germany, and then flew at an altitude of 7,230 ft (2,200 m).

In September 2023, Joby announced that H2FLY and its French partner Air Liquide celebrated when the HY4 testbed flew in Maribor, Slovenia, utilizing liquid hydrogen. Prior flights of all piloted hydrogen-electric aircraft used gaseous hydrogen.

Gaseous hydrogen storage tanks are heavy, while liquid hydrogen (LH2) tanks are lighter and take up less space but require maintaining cryogenic temperatures. Compared to battery-electric energy, the use of hydrogen fuel cells will increase useful payload, range and endurance. H2FLY has won German and European government-backed research grants to realize the future of sustainable air travel.


Additional Information:

 
 

After flying hundreds of flights on the subscale demonstrator, Joby built its uncrewed Generation 1.0 demonstrator. This was followed by two Generation 2.0 pre-production prototypes, and the recently delivered Generation 2.1 production prototype. (Joby)

1.0 had no cockpit and had rearward-swept tail surfaces, subsequent aircraft have cockpits designed for five seats and have forward-swept tails. 2.0a had completely white propeller blades and (originally) a retractable landing gear. 2.0b has mainly white propeller blades with a black leading edge. 2.1a has all-black blades and a fixed landing gear.

About the Author

Ken Swartz is a senior aerospace marketing and communications strategist, running Aeromedia Consultants. A long-time consultant to the aviation, aerospace and vertical flight industry, he’s held management positions in the regional airline, helicopter and aircraft manufacturing industries for 30+ years, and has reported on vertical flight since 1978. In 2010, he received the Helicopter Association International’s “Communicator of the Year” award. 

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