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US Air Force Primes the eVTOL Industry
  • 03 Mar 2021 03:12 PM
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US Air Force Primes the eVTOL Industry

By Kenneth I. Swartz
Vertiflite, March/April 2021

With the US Air Force’s Agility Prime now underway for more than a year, Vertiflite looks back at the beginning and the most recent accomplishments.

Note: An extensive complementary online-only article by the author, detailing the past, present and future of the Air Force’s Agility Prime and related eVTOL funding efforts, “Agility Prime Accelerates eVTOL Development,” is also available.

[Picture on the Top: Joby’s 2.0 air taxi in flight — still unmanned, but now with a pilot’s seat installed. (Joby)]

The US Air Force officially launched its Agility Prime initiative when it issued a request for information (RFI) on Dec. 17, 2019 — the 116th anniversary of the Wright Flyer making the first heavier-than-air powered flight. In the first intake of companies in the Air Force’s “Air Race to Certification,” some 20 eVTOL companies applied to participate. The Air Force stipulated that they had to meet the precondition of having a flying prototype or proof-of-concept aircraft by Dec. 17, 2020 (this has now been extended a year, for a second cohort of eVTOL developers).

The Air Race is not really a race between electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) companies, but an Air Force-sponsored initiative to accelerate the maturity of eVTOL technology, US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aircraft certification and entry into commercial service aircraft.

All the companies that were accepted into the first tranche of Air Race participants were required to go through a three-phase review process: a “solution brief” or written submission; a “company engagement,” which includes a site visit by Air Force personnel to inspect an aircraft and learn about its systems; and a request for prototype proposal (RPP), where qualifying companies are invited to submit a full written proposal to win a multi-year Other Transaction for Prototype (OTP) contract.

Agility Prime has different funding mechanisms designed to support the extremely fast contracting and payment philosophy the Air Force believes is essential to move at “Silicon Valley” speed.

Most of the funding has been channeled through the Force Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants for businesses and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) grants, which are designed to foster innovative partnerships between industry and research organizations.

These initiatives are funded by the US Small Business Administration (SBA) rather than the military services. Both types of grants have three phases: concept development, prototype development and commercialization. The third phase is not covered by SBIR funding, but requires another government agency investment to continue (e.g. US Air Force funding only).

The US government has spent more than $130M on eVTOL to date, including internal support costs (e.g. running the Agility Prime program, such as the virtual events). More than half of this went to SBIR and STTR contracts to eVTOL partners in industry and academia.

The STTR program received over 335 applications including submissions from 280 businesses and 159 research organizations over its first six months and, in November/December 2020, selected 257 proposals to receive a total of $38.5M in research and development funding.

An important distinction, however, is that the Air Race to Certification contracts do not provide significant direct funding, but are rather more like “fee for service” efforts. Agility Prime also offers a large menu of services that the Air Force is willing to provide for free to eVTOL developers that qualify. The list includes access to “unique Air Force assets — test ranges, safety certifications, and military missions capable of logging steady flight hours — to build confidence in the technology, attract investors, and hopefully expedite domestic commercialization. It also provides the Air Force revolutionary agility for numerous missions.”

The largest of the contracts awarded to date are worth around $45M over about a 30-month term and include funding to support digital engineering, immersive flight and mission simulators at multiple locations, and approximately 2,000 hours of funded flight-test time.

Public documents that fill in many of the details have been elusive — and the Air Force repeatedly declined requests for contact award information — but the benefits are starting to be apparent across the industry as the Air Force puts all the pieces in place to be an early adopter and customer for eVTOL technology.

Innovative Capabilities Opening
The Air Race to Certification is officially known as Agility Prime’s Innovative Capabilities Opening (ICO) solicitation that was released on Feb. 27, 2020 (following the RFI two months earlier). It was soon followed by three Areas of Interest (AOIs), referring to different eVTOL size and capability classes. AOI-1 is for aircraft with 3–8 seats and AOI-1 for 1–2 people, while AOI-3 is for cargo payloads above 500 lb (227 kg).

The Air Race is “creating opportunities for collaborative test planning with the potential of offering test assets and expertise; leveraging this campaign for near-term government airworthiness authorization as well as procurement of hardware, software, data, or services. The intent is to accelerate certification, while also assessing the value of early adoption and fielding. Near-term government use-cases could occur prior to civil certification and might provide revenue and data to help accelerate even broader adoption and technology development.”

While many of the eVTOL aircraft now under Agility Prime consideration were launched without a military mission or customer in mind, the Air Force’s sudden interest provided an unexpected funding source that can be a catalyst for attracting additional private investment. The possibility that the US government might become a significant near-term customer provides an opportunity for companies to earn immediate revenue, particularly important since commercial eVTOL markets will only develop over the next several years.

AFWERX Accelerate
Agility Prime was started by Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (SAF/AQ) Dr. Will Roper (see “Agility Prime Accelerates eVTOL Development”). His interest was inspired by eVTOL initiatives underway by organizations like the Army Research Laboratory (ARL) and the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC).

When Agility Prime — today under the service’s AFWERX program — was launched in late 2019, there were only three members on the Air Force planning team, led by Col. Nathan Diller, now also the AFWERX Director.

Over the past year, AFWERX — originally founded in 2017 — has grown into a larger entity as it absorbed AFVentures (the new commercial investment arm of the Air Force) and was moved as an organization under the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Agility Prime has grown to a staff of more than 75 people, drawn from across the Air Force to work on eVTOL projects on a full- or part-time basis. Maj. John “Wasp” Tekell is AFWERX’s Prime Deputy Division Chief.

In December, AFWERX hosted its weeklong Accelerate virtual conference that featured a full day of Agility Prime programs on Dec. 10. The programing that day kicked off with a virtual ground-breaking for a new eVTOL simulation facility at Ohio’s Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport that will be shared initially by Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation, followed by a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new electric aircraft charging station installed by Beta at the airport.

VIPs attending the virtual event included Ohio Lt. Gov. Jon Husted; J.P. Nauseef, Ohio Jobs; Frank Delsing, Agility Prime; Paul Waugh, the Program Executive Officer (PEO) and Director for the Mobility and Training Aircraft Directorate at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center (AFLCMC); and Brig. Gen. Heather Pringle, AFRL Commander.

L-R: Joby’s Bevirt; AFWERX’s Diller and Tekell; and Agility Prime Program Manager Tolentino. (Agility Prime screenshot)

The joint-use airport is 25 miles (40 km) east of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, which is the headquarters for AFRL and AFLCMC.

Springfield-Beckley currently hosts three units of the Ohio National Guard, including the 178th Wing, which controls the General Atomics MQ-1 Predators deployed overseas in theatres such as Iraq and Afghanistan. The airport is also home for the Ohio Unmanned Aircraft Systems Center (Ohio UAS Center), which has a 200-square-mile (520-km²) test area that extends to 10,000 ft (3,050 m) above ground level (AGL) to support beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) UAV operations.

The state of Ohio helped create the Ohio UAS Center with the goal of expanding UAS employment in the state, which Agility Prime is now helping to stimulate. In 2019, AFRL and other partners invested $5M to develop and install the SkyVision ground-based detect and avoid (GBDAA) system at the Ohio UAS Center. It uses three existing FAA active radar systems to track unmanned aircraft. SkyVision is installed in a mobile unit that can be placed in different locations on the test range.

Rapid Contracting
While many are quick to point to the Air Force engagement on the technological side, “what Dr. Roper and Col. Diller did in terms of procurement is absolutely the biggest innovation of this entire Agility Prime thing,” said Kyle Clark, CEO of Beta Technologies.

“We all think we are smart, hot sh*ts for developing airplanes, but Dr. Roper and Col. Diller navigated a massively arcane procurement system and installed something that was fast and efficient. With all my prior years of doing stuff for the Army and for others in my prior businesses, I’ve never seen a procurement activity go that efficiently. So, in my mind, that was probably the biggest innovation and that’s what’s giving them an edge over others,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing driven by Dr. Roper that was just visionary…. I’ve gone for programs that take a year to contract. That we have received four [Agility Prime] contracts in just over a year is astounding,” said Clark.

Joby has said it has made more than 1,000 total flights, including [as of April 2020] 700+ flights of its subscale model, 200+ of the unmanned 1.0 technology demonstrator, but an unspecified number of tests of its passenger-capable 2.0 air taxi. (Joby; screenshot)

Flight Testing
In civil aviation, the requirements for FAA oversight of US civil aircraft certification and operations are set out in Title 14 of the US Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). When it comes to military aircraft certification, military handbook MIL-HDBK-516C establishes the Airworthiness Certification Criteria.

One of the differences is that when a civilian company builds a prototype aircraft and wants to start test flights, they apply to the FAA for a special airworthiness certificate in the experimental category, which sets out very specific limitations regarding where an aircraft can fly and how it can be flown, but it is not evaluated against pre-set criteria. This comes later when the aircraft goes through a certification to receive a type certificate under Part 23 or 25 for airplanes, Part 27 and 29 for rotorcraft, or 21.17b for “special classes,” such as “powered-lift” aircraft.

The US military, on the other hand, doesn’t have an equivalent to the FAA experimental airworthiness category that doesn’t require compliance with the 516C criteria. However, the military has an intermediate category between a civil experimental category approval and a military airworthiness certificate that makes a risk-based airworthiness assessment of a prototype design. It allows the military to evaluate and learn about the capabilities of a dual-use civil-military aircraft while it is going through an FAA certification program. That’s what’s required for a civilian aircraft to fly under Air Force contract or direction such as Agility Prime.

Diller explained to Vertiflite that the Air Force is “not doing a certification process where we’re leaving it to the FAA. We're collaborating closely with the FAA on their certification process. And in the long term, we have an approach for reciprocity to leverage the FAA certification process.”

The last phase is also the stepping stone that places the Air Force in a position to place production orders for eVTOL aircraft for yet-to-be-determined logistics and other missions within the service. “Once we go into larger production,” Diller explained, “what this allows us to do is… an in-depth assessment, engineering discipline by engineering discipline, of each of the vehicles. We also do an assessment of their approach to operations. That assessment then allows us to characterize the risk, and that risk assessment then is what allows us to make a determination of… whether or not we want to actually start using government funding to direct those flights. So, it is the process that is necessary for the government to direct flight test, the process that's necessary for the government to provide funding for flight tests.”

In June 2020, the Air Force developed a technical airworthiness authority (TAA) plan for eVTOL aircraft, required in order for privately owned eVTOL aircraft to fly within military facilities and ranges under Air Force direction. 

Joby Aviation was the first company to complete the airworthiness review in December 2020, with another four companies following closely behind, Diller told Vertiflite. It took an Air Force team 47 days from its first look at the Joby six-propeller air taxi (originally called the Joby S4) to the issuance of its airworthiness approval (a “military flight release”) in early December that met the requirements of LOA-II and the 516C Handbook.

The Wall Street Journal published an article on the morning of Dec. 10 revealing Joby’s airworthiness approval. More broadly it explained, “The Air Force will help accelerate safety analyses by conducting flight tests, pledging to pay for contracts seeking to verify vehicle reliability and generally vetting the capabilities of vehicles through direct and indirect funding of the company.”

Agility Prime has three focus areas for early developmental flight testing, Diller said: basic performance, aircraft handling and aircraft systems. Some of the flights will also be focused on “expanding the envelope in the areas that we feel the vehicles will be used.”

Waugh’s organization (AFLCMC/WL) has been designated to oversee the test program; Natasha Tolentino is the Agility Prime Program Manager.

“The next piece for us is to continue to develop the business case analytics,” said Diller, which will include “working collaboratively with some of the major logistics companies and some of the major airlines in the United States,” and with consulting companies “to better understand the logistics benefits eVTOL aircraft might provide.”

Training and Simulation
Companies selected for the Air Race are also receiving funding from the Air Force to set up simulation centers to support the operational evaluation of their aircraft by the AFRL and other stakeholders.

Agility Prime has highlighted the simulation centers Joby and Beta are establishing at Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. Vertiflite has also learned that Beta has established a simulation center in downtown Washington, DC, “a block from the Capitol building” for use by the US Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Naval Test Pilot School and other agency stakeholders exploring eVTOL use cases and operations.

At the Vertical Flight Society’s 8th Annual eVTOL Symposium (see “Autonomous & Electric VTOL Meeting Sets New Record,” pg. 74) in January 2021, Diller said the Air Force had committed more than $100M to conduct flight tests with different eVTOL developers. This will feed back into the business case models for more than 20 different use cases being considered for these aircraft.

The Joby air taxi received the world’s first military airworthiness in December 2020. This photo of the aircraft in full conversion, and the company’s new logo, was published in February. (Joby)

He also told attendees that the Air Force recently set up a new organization to study eVTOL pilot and maintenance training under Air Education and Training Command, headquartered at Randolph Air Force Base near San Antonio, Texas.

Diller said some of the questions the new group will address include, “What does it look like to operate these vehicles? What does it look like to maintain them? How do we build a syllabus to begin moving forward quickly over this next year where our airmen are [piloting] remote flights [and] eventually manned flights?” And then, “What does it mean to operate eventually an autonomous system of these types of vehicles?”

Joby Aviation
Joby Aviation, led by founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt, has been leading the pack of 20 eVTOL companies signed up for the ICO Air Race to Certification, thanks to its head start on eVTOL development that began in 2009 (see “The First Electric VTOL Unicorn: Joby Aviation,” Vertiflite, March/April 2020).

At AFWERX Accelerate on Dec. 10, Roper used the virtual stage “to announce a world’s first. Joby Aviation is receiving the first military airworthiness for an electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.”

“This is an exciting announcement because it means you are literally seeing a new market emerge. This is exactly the type of public-private partnership innovation the Air Force and Space Force want to be a part of. We want to make amazing things happen, not just for the military, but for the world. We are excited to see what's to come for Joby and other companies pushing the boundaries of electric vertical takeoff and landing — or flying cars,” said Roper. “To JoeBen and the entire Joby team, congratulations. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.” [Note: the video segment with Roper’s speech and the Joby air taxi flying was deleted from the YouTube recording. — Ed.]

In the months leading up to Accelerate, the Air Force team completed an evaluation report of Joby’s tilt-propeller air taxi. This was for the Technical Airworthiness Authority and Air Force Special Airworthiness Process required for contractor-owned, contractor-operated (COCO) aircraft.

Bevirt told the Accelerate audience that, “our partnership with AFWERX and the Air Force has been transformative, and we're incredibly grateful for your support. It's been a spectacular first year. We've made incredible progress, and we're so excited about what lies ahead as we demonstrate global leadership in advanced air mobility.”

“This program has given us access to facilities, resources and equipment that accelerated testing [and] allowed us to prove out the reliability and performance of our aircraft. We’re really excited about this next phase of the program, where we're going to be demonstrating the full flight envelope, while giving our government partners a front row seat into this transformative new technology,” he added.

Bevirt said he is looking forward to the day after the COVID-19 pandemic when everyone can “experience the spectacular acoustic performance of our aircraft. We’ve worked hard on not just reducing the absolute level of the noise, but the quality of the noise, the tone of the noise to make it blend into the background as much as possible. Our target is really to have these aircraft be the mainstay of daily mobility, and that means that they have to blend into our environments.”

Joby had received its first 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) in 2018. The base is located approximately 88 miles (140 km) southeast of Joby’s headquarters near Santa Cruz, California.

In July 2020, Joby transported its five-seat, generation 2.0 aircraft (JAS4-2, registration N542AJ) by helicopter to Fort Hunter Liggett for remotely piloted test flights (see “Electric VTOL News: Joby Takes Flight,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2020).

According to publicly available flight-tracking data on FlightAware.com, the Joby 2.0 typically flies a circular pattern over a landing field within Liggett. For instance, a flight on Jan. 14, 2021, lasted 14 minutes and covered 18 miles (29 km) at cruise speeds between 74 mph (119 km/h) and 90 mph (145 km/h).

Having the ability to use military airspace has “been a transformative capability for us and we're very grateful,” said Bevirt. “It's fantastic to think about how we can use these new aircraft technologies to make the logistics of our government services more efficient, to reduce the cost of operations and be more environmentally friendly as we move goods and people around military installations.”

Bevirt also highlighted the transformative capabilities of fly-by-wire flight controls, where “you can really dramatically change the experience for the pilot. And you can make it so the pilot spends more of their time doing… the decision-making that humans are uniquely suited to do, and remove some of the low-level burden of stabilizing the aircraft like you do with a helicopter. And so, the flight simulator [being installed in Ohio] is really exciting because it'll give pilots and… everyone the ability to experience firsthand what an amazing experience it is to fly one of these next-generation aircraft.”

The Agility Prime part of AFWERX Accelerate was only two days after Joby announced its acquisition of the Uber’s Elevate unit (see “Joby Transitions,” Vertiflite, Jan/Feb 2021). Commenting on the transaction, Bevirt noted in particular that the Elevate airspace team is “incredibly accomplished” and that they are “really going to help Joby to accelerate the deployment of takeoff and landing locations into communities and to build out the airspace.”

During last year’s disastrous wildfire season in California, Bevirt saw firsthand how California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) aircraft fought the wildfires threatening its facilities in Bonny Doon. Joby has since launched a research project to better understand how an eVTOL aircraft could be employed in aerial firefighting. For example, he believes that an unmanned aircraft could fly “24/7,” whereas current firefighting aircraft are restricted to daytime visual flight rules (VFR) operations.

On Feb. 9, Joby Aviation announced that it had agreed to a “G1” certification basis for its aircraft with FAA in 2020. “This agreement lays out the specific requirements that need to be met by Joby’s aircraft for it to be certified for commercial operations,” Joby said in a press release. Joby’s air taxi will meet the existing Part 23 requirements for Normal Category Airplanes, with special conditions introduced to address requirements specific to Joby’s unique tilt-propeller aircraft. These special conditions, defined in the “G1” document specific to Joby, are expected to be published in the US Federal Register in the coming months.

In the press release, Joby also announced that (in 2020) it had “begun generating revenue as part of achieving another major milestone in the Agility Prime program.” Diller explained (in comments to Janes.com that were provided to Vertiflite) that “the milestone was completing all preparation for their first flight test for the USAF to begin receiving funding for their contracted flights with AFWERX Agility Prime. Currently, the airworthiness is for unmanned contractor-owned and contractor-operated flights. We expect to expand that moving forward.”

Joby has often reiterated expectation to achieve airworthiness certification in 2023. In the press releases, the company also said for the first time that it intends to operate its air taxi as a commercial passenger aircraft, beginning in 2024.

The next day, Garmin announced a strategic relationship that will see the G3000 integrated flight deck installed on Joby’s eVTOL aircraft. The lightweight and modular G3000 will be integrated with the aircraft’s fly-by-wire mission computer and provide the flight guidance displays required for a simplified vehicle operations (SVO) control system.

The G3000 was first unveiled at the National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) Convention in 2009 for light single- and twin-engine, turbine-powered, fixed-wing aircraft. It announced the G3000H for helicopters in May 2018, with the Kopter SH09 as the launch platform (see “Industry Briefs,” pg. 6).

Beta Technologies
Beta Technologies has been among the more transparent eVTOL developers in the US with its first- and second-generation eVTOL aircraft flying in public view from Plattsburgh International Airport in upstate New York, and a recent steady stream of spectacular air-to-air photographs (by photojournalist Eric Adams) that seem to confirm “this eVTOL aircraft is real.”

On May 23, 2018, Beta made the first tethered flight of its original 4,000 lb (1,800 kg) Ava XC proof of concept aircraft (see “Meet Ava: Q&A with Kyle Clark, CEO of Beta Technologies,” Vertiflite, Sept/Oct 2019). The Ava was a somewhat crude testbed with eight propellers built around a Lancair ES cabin with a modified 35 ft (10.7 m) wing and tail.

After several hundred Ava XC test flights at Plattsburgh Airport, Beta received a $48M contract from its principle backer United Therapeutics to develop a simpler second-generation eVTOL design. The result is the elegant Alia-250, which was essentially built “around the propulsion system… to end up with higher performing aircraft,” said Beta’s Clark.

Development of the Alia-250 moved extremely quickly from small-scale model testing to construction of a full-scale, 6,000-lb (2,720-kg) prototype in early 2020. It features a 50-ft (15.2-m) arched wing (with dihedral inboard and anhedral outboard), four two-bladed, fixed-pitch lifting propellers and a rear-mounted three-bladed variable-pitch pusher propeller for cruise.

Beta was hard at work developing the Alia-250 for United Therapeutics in late 2019 when “Col. Diller and [early Agility Prime advisor] Col. Scott McKeever [figuratively] showed up at our door and said, ‘Hey, we are interested in talking to you about this program,’” recalled Clark, who had no idea anyone at the Air Force was even interested in eVTOL aircraft prior to the visit.

The Air Force encouraged Beta to apply for a contract and Clark was extremely surprised that, “a week later we got approved. Then we hit deliverables a week later… and got paid!” Beta’s first contact for $49,000 was awarded on Dec. 12, 2019, for a design study for an eVTOL aircraft adaptation for cargo logistics.

Over the next year, Beta received three more Air Force contracts worth nearly $50M. The GovTribe.com website reports that Beta received a $3M contract on June 16, 2020, that that was part of a COVID-19 Defense Industrial Base (DIB) SBIR Phase II grant. Then on Sept. 29–30, Beta received “Phase 3 OTA For Prototype — eVTOL Aircraft Prototype Testing” awards from Agility Prime worth up to $44.3M for “flight test research and development, prototype simulators, and digital engineering and digital twin research and development.”

From an aircraft development perspective, however, Clark said the most important support has been the “in-kind area of interest (AOI) contract where we get access to their airworthiness team, their ground vibration team, their flight test expertise, their flight test team and design approval representatives (DERs).” Getting “battle-hardened” experts from the Air Force to assist the company in many technical areas has really helped “advance our program,” he said.

Beta started with hover tests in Burlington, Vermont. (Blue Force Technologies)

Beta is now flying its Alia-250 extensively around Plattsburgh, New York, without the lift propellers; a special frame with wheels was added for CTOL flights. (Eric Adams photo for Beta)

Alia is designed for United Therapeutics’ organ transplant mission, as well as passenger, cargo and other missions. (Beta)

For example, the Air Force “sent their entire team from their vibration lab” to Beta’s hangar to help the company run vibration tests on the Alia-250 when it was sitting on air pillows in the hangar at the company’s Vermont headquarters at Burlington International Airport prior to first flight.

Even more significant, Clark said, have been the semi-weekly meetings between Beta and the Air Force flight-test teams, “where we review our test cards, our flight test objectives and obviously the sequencing and build up safety,” said Clark.

“There's a lot of books on how to flight test a fixed-wing airplane. There's a lot of books on how to flight test a helicopter. But when you take an aircraft that converts between a winged aircraft and a hovering aircraft, and you compound that with an entirely new propulsion system and an entirely new control system, the flight test sequence and the build-up looks and smells quite a bit different than a traditional aircraft. And the flight test build-up program is drastically different because the risks are different.”

Beta has turned to experienced subcontractors to build large parts of the aircraft (such as Blue Force Technologies to fabricate the composite structures), while it focused its efforts on developing the motors, the high-power semiconductors and the energy-dense batteries that form the aircraft’s electric-propulsion units. In the Burlington suburb of Williston, Beta has built a plant to produce dual-use charging stations for both electric cars and aircraft.

The prototype Alia-250 (N250UT) underwent months of tethered hover tests at Burlington International Airport, but Clark said the airport’s Class C airspace is not suitable for advanced flight-test work.

On June 12, the Alia-250 made its public debut when it flown northwest across Lake Chaplain to the former US Air Force Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber base at Plattsburgh, New York, carried on the cargo hook of a chartered Sikorsky S-61N.

Once in Plattsburgh, Beta removed the lift propellers and the skid landing gear and installed a set of wheeled landing gear, so the aircraft could fly as a fixed-wing aircraft. There are multiple motors powering each lift propeller, but Clark would only say that “it's more than one and less than seven to provide redundancy.”

“We hovered it first and now we're flying fixed wing. And then we will bring the two together and do our transitions at high altitude first,” said Clark, who also doubles as the company’s main test pilot. “It was not an obvious sequence. So, you have to collect the advice of many experts, evaluate it in context and develop a plan that hasn't been done before.”

At the eVTOL Symposium in January, Clark said the aircraft is designed to carry 3,000 lb (1,360 kg) of batteries, which represents about 325 kW of energy. This should give the aircraft “a 250-nm [460-km] range with the appropriate state of charge to extract the power necessary to do a vertical landing at the end of the mission,” while flying at “a relatively slow speed” of 105 kt [195 km/h]. “It's actually a pretty high performing aircraft with all this redundancy and the pusher motors [driving the propeller]. You've got two fully capable pusher motors in there pushing this thing up at 1,500 to 2,000 feet a minute [7.6 to 10.2 m/s].”

Beta presented its proposed recharging station map at the VFS eVTOL Symposium in January. (Beta screenshot)

At the VFS eVTOL Symposium in January, Beta CEO Kyle Clark highlighted the company’s subscale development and testing efforts. (Beta screenshot)

According to FlightAware, Alia’s longest flight in January 2021 was 58 minutes, covering a distance of 91 miles (146 km) at speeds up to 120 mph (193 km/h). Beta uses an Airbus H125 as a chase plane, but the team also has three Enstrom helicopters in its hangar.

On Dec. 10, Clark took part in the virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony at Springfield-Beckley airport for Beta’s new recharging pad, which is located along the fence line and has one node for aircraft and another for ground vehicles. Beta intends to fly the Alia-250 from Plattsburgh to Springfield-Beckley airport as part of its Air Force flight-test contract.

The program letter drafted by the FAA Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) for Beta establishes the number of hundreds of flight hours and flight tests the Alia-250 must achieve before it can leave its experimental flight-test area in Plattsburgh.

To support the future 626-mile (1,007-km) cross-country journey, Beta is installing aircraft charging stations at three airports along the route in northern New York — Griffiss International Airport (KRME), Penn Yan Airport (KPEO), and Chautauqua County/Jamestown Airport (KJHW).

Clark emphasized that Agility Prime represents just one aspect of the company’s business. It actually has contracts with four organizations for the Alia-250, but he would only name two — Agility Prime and United Therapeutics (UT).

Founded by serial entrepreneur Martine Rothblatt, United Therapeutics plans to acquire an eVTOL aircraft fleet for the rapid delivery of manufactured organs for human transplants (see “Electric VTOL for Organs on Demand,” Vertiflite, March/April 2019).

In an interview with Vermont Business Magazine published on Feb. 15, Clark said that he expects FAA certification of the Alia-250 to be a two-and-a-half to three-year process, and that he expects to be able to sell the first Alia to the Air Force as early as 2022. He said that would lead to the deployment of the first squadron in 2023, followed by the first delivery to a commercial customer in 2024.

Clark told the magazine that “he expected UT to start flying Alia ‘between 2025 and 2026. They have anchored on having 60 aircraft deployed in 2026, and 100 aircraft deployed yearly from 2027 onward’” for organ transplant flights.

Beta has released a couple of route maps that show the approximate locations of charging stations it plans to install for UT, linking Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Manchester and even Bromont, Quebec, where a Canadian subsidiary of United Therapeutics has an eVTOL flight test center.

“Without the Air Force catalyzing” a lot of airworthiness test work, Clark told Vertiflite, they “would be left with shorter tentacles out into the networks that we know presently.” It was the ability to bring people the technical expertise together that “has really enabled us to accelerate some of that advanced testing.”

He lauded the Air Force personnel, saying they had the attitude of, “‘No BS — what are you going to do? We're going to take what you guys have right now and we're going to help make that even better.’ And that just simple innovation has completely transformed the pace at which we're able to do things.”

The Air Force has also assisted Beta with cyber resiliency and digital engineering, and the company has partnered with the aerospace engineering department at Wichita State University on some projects.

LIFT Aircraft
LIFT Aircraft of Austin, Texas, delivered two production versions of its single-seat HEXA eVTOL aircraft and a flight simulator to Springfield-Beckley in late January to support its AOI-2 Phase II development and flight-testing contract with Agility Prime.

Since LIFT CEO Matt Chasen made the first manned flight of the 18 propeller multicopter on Nov. 1, 2018, the company has been flying three prototype aircraft — which fall into the FAA’s Part 103 ultralight class — at its test sites in the US and Hungary.

Last year, LIFT partnered with a major airframe manufacturer to start low-rate initial production of the HEXA composite airframe. The first fully assembled HEXA, serial number H004 (FAA registration N601HX), rolled off the line and immediately went on exhibition in Seoul for South Korea's first Urban Air Mobility Expo in November. The company completed delivery of five production aircraft in late 2020/early 2021, including the two aircraft delivered to the Air Force in Ohio.

The company has partnered with the Center for Autonomous Air Mobility at the University of Texas in Austin to conduct flight research, and an aircraft is now based at the campus.

The Agility Prime project milestones include reassembly, ground test and verification of the aircraft, followed by the steps required to get military airworthiness approval and a military flight release. Then flight testing will begin, with probably a 50/50 mix of piloted and remotely piloted flights in 2021, said Chasen.

LIFT is now developing performance curves to identify the optimum speed of the aircraft to achieve the best payload and range on battery power. 

LIFT Aircraft received its first military contract on Dec. 12, 2019, a SBIR worth up to $49,800. Then on March 6, 2020, it received a $50,000 contract “to design and explore a first response and medical evacuation concept” for a manned ultralight aircraft. This was followed on Aug. 14, 2020, by a COVID-19 DIB contract for “furtherance of electric Vertical-Takeoff and Landing domestic industry and technology progress,” worth up to $2.5M.

Chasen believes the rules will allow agencies to easily utilize the HEXA for emergency medical services, such as delivering “first response emergency technicians on scene with a fraction of the time of a ground ambulance [and] at about 1/20th the cost of an air ambulance. There are very disruptive things you can achieve even with a small-scale aircraft like ours,” that will save lives.

“We've tried to intentionally find use cases and markets for eVTOLs that don't require radical new batteries or propulsion systems or regulations,” Chasen said at the Accelerate event. “Our HEXA conforms to the Part 103 ultralight class, so there's no FAA certification required and there's no pilot’s license required to fly either for recreation and sport use, or for public use by federal, state and local government agencies. There's a mission for public use. We're looking at opportunities in early testing to deploy on operational projects with lots of federal, state and local governments going forward.”

Under military certification, Chasen believes the Air Force could ultimately fly the HEXA at heavier weights and higher speeds than currently allowed by the FAA for Part 103 ultralights, a maximum of 55 kt (102 km/h).

On the commercial side, he said LIFT expects to offer “the world's first experiential entertainment offering [where] anyone can fly an electric retail aircraft without a pilot’s license with less than an hour of training in our simulator. We think that there is huge latent demand. We have sold out our 25-city tour where we're going to take a couple of our HEXA aircraft on the road. We have over 15,000 people on wait lists. Unfortunately, COVID has delayed our tour, but it has given us a lot of extra time to expand our test flight envelope.”

Chasen said that production of the next 25 aircraft has begun and LIFT is close to finalizing the location of its first entertainment facility. Once finalized, the site will be mapped and geofenced to ensure first-time pilots don’t get close to any hazardous obstacles.

The launch of Agility Prime included the live-stream rollout on May 1, 2020, of the Sabrewing Rhaegal-A cargo drone at Hayward Executive Airport, California.

On Dec 12, 2019, the Air Force had awarded Sabrewing Aircraft Company a $49,580 SBIR Phase I contract, entitled, “Sabrewing Aircraft RG-1 ‘Rhaegal’ Heavy-Lift, High-Speed, Long-Distance, Unmanned Commercial Air Cargo eVTOL Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Adapted For DOD mission.” This was followed on July 1, 2020, by the award of a two-year COVID-19 DIB SBIR Phase II contract, with a potential value of $3.3M.

Sabrewing is preparing its Rhaegal-A cargo drone for first flight.(Sabrewing Photo)

The half-scale Rhaegal-A and full-scale Rhaegal-B are both single-wing, turbo-electric eVTOL aircraft with four tilting ducted fans — two mounted on forward pylons and two on the tail. Both models will be powered by a Safran Ardiden 3 turboshaft engine rated at 1,890 hp (1,408 kW) for takeoff and 1,660 hp (1,237 kW) for continuous flight. All the electrical power will be used to power the ducted fans, since the design does not include heavy batteries.

At the rollout, Sabrewing Chairman and CEO Ed De Reyes said both aircraft are being designed to have a cruise speed of 240 mph (386 km/h) and maximum service ceiling of 22,000 ft (6,700 m) to fly over mountains and bad weather. The smaller aircraft with a 30-ft (9.1-m) wingspan is designed to carry a 2,200-lb (1,100-kg) payload and the larger model with a 55.8-ft (17-m) span is being designed to lift 5,400 lb (2.45 metric tons) of payload in VTOL flight and 10,000 lb (4.5 t) conducting a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL).

As of press time, the company had not made any announcements on the status of its Rhaegal-A aircraft since the rollout last year. However, De Reyes commented in early February: “As far as G-1s are concerned, we're expecting ours within the next few weeks. We've had our paperwork and application in for over a year, and started working with the FAA towards certification in February of 2018.”

Elroy Air
Elroy Air has an Agility Prime AOI-3 contract to support its development of autonomous aerial logistics aircraft. At AFWERX Accelerate, company co-founder and CEO Dave Merrill said, “we have received really substantial additional demand for our Chaparral aircraft from big commercial logistics partners.”

Elroy Air’s first-generation Chaparral at the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco. The company is now working on an improved design. (Elroy)

The Chaparral is a 1,900-lb (860-kg) maximum takeoff weight hybrid-electric lift-plus-cruise winged-UAS with six lift propellers and a three-bladed pusher propeller. It is intended to fly a 300-lb (135-kg) payload cargo pod a distance of 300 miles (480 km). The pods are designed so they can be loaded independently on the ground and then be automatically picked up by the aircraft and flown to a destination.

The company’s first military funding came through a $1.5M Phase 2 SBIR contract awarded by AFSOC on Aug. 3, 2019, before Agility Prime was launched. It was later amended to include “autonomous aerial cargo and intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance (ISR) systems.”

The first-generation, 1,215-lb (550-kg) Chaparral demonstrator underwent a comprehensive flight-test program at McMillan Airfield (CA62), a fixed-wing and rotorcraft UAS test facility operated by the US Naval Postgraduate School (USNPS) Field Laboratory in Monterey, California. The 3,500-ft (1.1-km) long runway is located within the restricted air space of the Camp Roberts California Army National Guard Training Site, about 85 miles (137 km) southeast of Monterey.

Access to the military airspace allowed Elroy Air to “run experimentation on our early demonstrator aircraft in advance of engaging the FAA to get an experimental flight certificate,” said Merrell.

The aircraft arrived at the base in July 2019 and the first six weeks were spent assembling the aircraft. The flight-test program ran from August to October, often on 100°F days.

Elroy’s SBIR contract moved under Agility Prime after it was officially launched. And then in March 2020 the company received a significant Phase 3 contract under the Air Force’s new Strategic Financing (STRATFI) program, which picked 21 “big bet” companies “to receive four-year, fixed-price contracts worth a combined $550+ million.”

Construction of a second-generation Chaparral began in the first quarter of 2020, working “with an expert design-build partner that [uses the] quick-build experimental aircraft approach” to composite aircraft manufacturing, said Merrell.

Elroy Air has developed a simulation environment to validate ground autonomy and substantial portions of the flight envelope by running “the actual flight code and control laws that will control the Chaparral vehicle,” said Merrill. “We emulate sensors and actuators to test the controls and the autonomy software in a representative simulated environment. And the overall vehicle design and configuration gets really significantly de-risked by this ability to perform, for instance, closed-loop transitions between VTOL and forward flight against this aerodynamics and flight dynamics model that captures the dominant effects.”

“So, we’re actually running essentially the nervous system of the aircraft on the bench top in tandem with the pure software simulation,” he said. They also plan to “put the powertrain in the loop with those upper simulations, so that we're running what's called a full iron bird with the software sim, avionics hardware and software, and the powertrain… to make sure we're burning down tremendous amounts of risk in advance of each flight test campaign.”

The Chaparral uses an integrated turboshaft engine and electric generator to drive the propellers and charge a lightweight battery system onboard the aircraft. During takeoff and landing, the motors draw power from the hybrid-electric generator and the batteries; the batteries are recharged in cruise flight and on the ground.

Elroy Air began development of the Chaparral to serve commercial cargo customers that required a VTOL aircraft with a range of more than 100 miles (160 km) to serve the “middle mile” segment industry of the logistics. A hybrid-electric powerplant helps achieve the range objectives and eliminates dependency on ground infrastructure. An autonomous military aerial logistics aircraft is not going to find a “Tesla style charging system” in austere operating regions, said Merrill.

Today’s logistics industry is undergoing rapid changes with a big push to accelerate middle-mile transportation between a port of entry or a large distribution center and a “last-mile” delivery center. “If you could take the high priority parcels, put them on an aircraft and then fly them directly to that last mile handoff point, you've eliminated the trip to the regional distribution center, which saves time,” explained Merrill.

Merrill sees many benefits to the Air Force’s entry into the eVTOL aircraft market, since “Agility Prime basically establishes kind of a home base inside the Air Force for autonomous VTOL.”

“The history of aerospace shows that it… really helps when the government can be an early adopter,” Merrill added. It also “helps accelerate new systems into the market… literally the minute they're able to be flown.”

Merrill also noted that “the majority of venture capital firms [in Silicon Valley] have exclusively or almost exclusively put their money behind software companies that have very low cost of goods. Aircraft are the opposite. It's pretty expensive to build the aircraft.”

“So, I think it really does help that the Air Force is raising their hand and saying, you know, [the eVTOL industry] is an important new chapter… we want to be the early adopters for the best of these systems. And we want to help accelerate these aircraft to readiness with these collaborations. And we want to start buying them in a couple of years.”

About the Author
Ken Swartz runs the agency Aeromedia Communications in Toronto, Canada. He specializes in aerospace market analysis and corporate communications. He’s worked in the regional airline, commercial helicopter and commercial aircraft manufacturing industries for 25+ years and has reported on vertical flight since 1978. In 2010, he received the Helicopter Association International’s “Communicator of the Year” award. He can be reached at kennethswartz@me.com.

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