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US Air Force Tells Congress of Agility Prime Successes
  • 16 Sep 2022 01:45 AM
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US Air Force Tells Congress of Agility Prime Successes

Service plans to be flying two dozen eVTOL aircraft this coming fiscal year

By Mike Hirschberg, VFS Executive Director

On August 3, 2022, the Secretary of the US Air Force Mr. Frank Kendall signed the cover letter for a Department of the Air Force “Report to Congressional Committees” on the AFWERX Agility Prime Program (dated July 2022). 

Secretary of the US Air Force Frank Kendall.

This report details the overview, approach, milestones, and future plans for the AFWERX Agility Prime program. This new approach is accelerating and adopting dual-use technologies in the Department of the Air Force, specifically for the transformative vertical lift and electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) industry. 

The Department of the Air Force appreciates congressional support for the Department's efforts to reinvigorate and grow engagement by small businesses, non-traditional companies, and the national security innovation base in support of national defense needs. 

This report was provided to the four Congressional Defense Committees, as requested in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Report 117-118 that accompanied the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2022.

The committee recognizes that the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime program is working towards its goal of ensuring a robust domestic market for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, as well as introducing the Department of Defense to zero emissions aviation. eVTOL aircraft can provide the Department with many unique use cases since they are electric, have significantly lower noise levels compared to today’s aircraft, lower maintenance and operating costs, and reduced heat signatures. The committee commends the Air Force for prioritizing the Agility Prime program and believes that continued investment in this technology will help to maintain the country’s global leadership in the eVTOL market. Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of the Air Force to submit a report to the congressional defense committees not later than March 30, 2022, on the research, development, testing, and acquisition strategy for the Agility Prime program.

What is Agility Prime?

The Air Force report noted that the mission of the service's AFWERX Prime division is “to expand technology transition paths to accelerate emerging dual-use markets by leveraging government resources for rapid and affordable fielding.” Agility Prime was the first AFWERX Prime program.

The first Air Force remotely piloted flight of an eVTOL aircraft was the Kittyhawk Heaviside in Dec. 2021.

The Agility Prime program pursues prototype projects from both traditional and non-traditional defense contractors to help the government assess the transformative vertical flight market and applicable hybrid or eVTOL technologies. “The collaborative strategy with industry and investors accelerates fielding of the most promising technologies, providing both savings and utility to the government, while enabling commercial market success,” the report states. “As the systems mature toward certified commercial operations, Agility Prime identifies opportunities for early adoption with the intent of procurement and fielding in expedited timelines.”

The report noted that the eVTOL aircraft under study for advanced air mobility (AAM) missions “may incorporate non-traditional electric or hybrid propulsion for crewed or optionally crewed missions, with onboard pilot, remote pilot, or autonomous control.” 

The report restated the original Agility Prime Area of Interest (AOI) schema (see “Agile Change in Air Force ‘Agility Prime’ Launch Pays Off, Vertiflite, July/Aug 2020), and also noted anticipated average vehicle procurement and annual operating costs for each vehicle size class. 

The report highlighted a number of successes to date. The Agility Prime program has supported research institutions by “accelerating AAM-focused technology development and basic supporting research” with more than 250 Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program contracts for research and development (“US Air Force Primes the eVTOL Industry,” Vertiflite, March/April 2021) 

In addition, AFWERX received more than 30 proposals from industry, advancing more than a dozen. AFWERX’s strategic investment division, AFVentures, also builds relationships across the venture capital ecosystem to understand the best opportunities for leveraging commercial investment within the targeted industry as well as share information on potential emerging companies. In addition, the report noted that, “Overall, the Agility Prime partners have raised over $7.5 billion in 2020-2021.”

Agility Prime also consummated collaborative interagency agreements with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “for partnership on aircraft certification approaches and flight standards for operators, maintainers, new aircraft configurations, powertrains, and levels of autonomy.” Air Force’s Air Education and Training Command Detachment 62 also “enables collaboration between industry partners and the FAA for training development and certification approaches necessary to operationalize certified aircraft.”

The first crewed flight of an Agility Prime electric aircraft was the Beta Alia in March 2022.

Agility Prime and NASA also established a Memorandum of Agreement to increase collaboration on the AAM National Campaign for “promoting public confidence and accelerating the realization of emerging aviation markets.” The report also notes that NASA could use the AFWERX contracts “to advance lunar landing simulation opportunities provided by the unique flight control laws of Agility Prime aircraft.” The report also highlighted partnerships with the US Army, US Navy Test Pilot School, US Coast Guard, and the US Marine Corps for logistics support concepts. 

Importantly, Agility Prime has also built relationships with state and local governments to foster initial commercial operations, such as the facilities at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal airport in Ohio, and the related creation of the National Advanced Air Mobility Center of Excellence (NAAMCE).

One of the reasons that then-Air Force Service Acquisition Executive Dr. Will Roper officially launched Agility Prime in 2020 was to support the possibilities that eVTOL aircraft could also provide to the military as well, and to ensure that the US did not repeat the mistakes that hobbled the commercial drone industry for most of the first two decades of this century. But providing seed support to the burgeoning AAM industry, Agility Prime:

  • lowers technical risk through collaborative test and evaluation, utilizing government subject matter experts and test infrastructure;
  • addresses regulatory risk by encouraging collaboration and government attention on commercial certification paths necessary for civilian operations; and 
  • lowers financial risk by providing initial government contracts for data, testing, experimentation, use case exploration and early adoption for fielding.

The report also highlights the importance expanding “trusted supply chains and potential markets to increase U.S. industry opportunities for sales to partner nations,” as well as “opportunities for enhanced wartime capacity and interoperability” and the wider potential for export sales than technology-controlled military aircraft.

Key Milestones

The report highlighted key milestones from the first two-and-a-half years of developments:

  • APR 2020     Program Launch, start of Innovative Capabilities Opening
  • JUN 2020     Approved Request for Prototype Proposal from first two Agility Prime companies participating in the “Air Race to Certification”
  • JUL 2020      Air Force airworthiness baseline for electric aircraft
  • DEC 2020    First company achieves uncrewed airworthiness (Joby Aviation)
  • JAN 2021     Air Education and Training Command (AETC) Detachment 62 established for operator and maintainer training development
  • MAR 2021   First crewed airworthiness achieved (Beta Technologies)
  • MAR 2021   First operational assessment of military transport of eVTOL aircraft for contingency response (LIFT Aircraft)
  • MAY 2021   First demonstration of medical evacuation capability using Agility Prime company (Kittyhawk)
  • AUG 2021   Four companies through airworthiness with flying prototypes
  • DEC 2021    First Air Force remotely piloted flight of eVTOL aircraft (Kittyhawk)
  • MAR 2022   First crewed flight of Agility Prime electric partner aircraft (Beta Technologies)
  • 4Q FY22      Establishment of autonomy proving ground (Eglin AFB, Florida)

Upcoming Plans 

In fiscal year 2023 (FY23), which begins Oct. 1, 2022, the Air Force plans to spend nearly $74M on Agility Prime research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E), $3.6M on procurement and $8.5M on operations, for a total of more than $86M.

The LIFT Aircraft HEXA eVTOL was demonstrated to then Secretary of the US Air Force Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown and Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne Bass.

In FY23, the Air Force plans to use RDT&E resources to continue risk reduction ground and flight testing with multiple aircraft manufacturers. Ground test examples include wind tunnel, environmental, cyber protection and electromagnetic interference characterization. Prototype flight testing will characterize performance, handling qualities and mission system effectiveness. Continued airworthiness assessments will be aimed at providing flight-certified vehicles and any required updates to existing airworthiness assessments. Flight tests will be performed in realistic operating environments and scenarios to provide data for business case analysis and fielding.

In addition, the program is planning to award FY23 procurement contracts and establish operational leases for approximately 10 aircraft for early use. The initial quantities are dependent on company development progression, asset availability and lease pricing solidification. The Air Force expects an additional 14 aircraft will be in developmental testing using RDT&E funding for a total of approximately 24 aircraft procured, on operational leases, or in testing via FY23 funding. 

The report concluded by noting that, “The AFWERX Agility Prime program provides government focus and coordination for acceleration of the eVTOL industry. By fostering diverse relationships and leveraging considerable commercial investment in the industry, Agility Prime creates new approaches to leveraging dual-use technologies and developing the industrial base for future national security objectives.”

In addition, “Continued government attention, interagency collaboration, and early adoption through procurement and operations contracts provides a potential path towards industry growth and enduring military and economic advantage for the U.S. and allies.”
 

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