WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s project to add electric air taxis to its fleet took a big step forward Monday, as Joby Aviation delivered the first such vehicle to Edwards Air Force Base in California for real-world testing.
AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation cell, launched its Agility Prime effort in 2020 to work with industry to develop electric vertical takeoff-and-landing aircraft. Until now, the service’s work on eVTOLs has focused on testing the aircraft in controlled experiments.
Edwards plans to use the Joby aircraft for day-to-day tasks, such as transporting spare parts or other cargo or passengers around the sprawling base, Maj. Phillip Woodhull, director of the Emerging Technologies Integrated Test Force at Edwards said in an interview.
The Joby aircraft is capable of carrying 1,000 pounds (454 kilograms) of cargo or four passengers, and can be flown remotely or by a single pilot in its cockpit. Meagher said it can fly up to 100 miles (161 kilometers) on a single charge and at speeds of up to roughly 200 miles per hour.
For the first several months, Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, division chief for AFWERX Prime, told Defense News, Joby pilots will remotely fly the aircraft around the base and only deliver cargo. As the Air Force gets more comfortable with the aircraft, he said, the service’s own pilots will start flying it and it will carry passengers.
Meagher said the Air Force plans to conduct remote piloting for the first few months for safety reasons.
“As you’re developing a new type of aircraft, remotely [piloting] removes that initial human risk,” Meagher said in an interview. “It’s a great way we’re seeing in industry, of how they can test a completely new power train, completely new type of vehicle, without putting a person in harm’s way as they prove out their systems.”
A second Joby aircraft is expected to follow next year, and the company could provide up to 9 aircraft to the Air Force under its $131 million Agility Prime contract. Joby will still own the aircraft, though the Air Force will eventually operate them.
Greg Bowles, Joby’s head of government affairs, said the California-based company first began working with the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Unit in 2016 on electric aircraft.
“Very early on, the government recognized we’re at a unique period of time,” Bowles said. “Electric aviation is going to be a powerful tool. We need to make sure that we understand it and make sure it evolves in a way that is conducive for the U.S.”
Other potential uses
When asked about potential uses for the Joby aircraft once it starts carrying passengers next year, Woodhull pointed to a roughly 240-square-mile lake bed on Edwards that is used as an emergency landing area. The lake bed sometimes cracks as it dries or the earth shifts, he said, so Edwards personnel have to periodically check it to make sure the ground is still safe to land on. The inspectors usually drive around in trucks, he said, and that job might be done more efficiently using a Joby aircraft.
Edwards’ security forces also could use the air taxi to patrol the base’s perimeter, or it could quickly shuttle maintainers to check on or fix test equipment throughout the base, Meagher and Woodhull said.
“We’re doing assessments of how it would be used, and what the suitability and effectiveness in that kind of thing would be,” Woodhull said.
Meagher said this is the first time such tests have been done on an eVTOL, and that Joby’s aircraft was sufficiently advanced to take this step. Joby said this delivery took place about six months earlier than expected.
Other companies are also progressing quickly, Meagher said, and AFWERX is looking forward to conducting similar tests with their eVTOL aircraft. The Air Force has contracts with more than a dozen companies to produce aircraft for Agility Prime, including Lift Aircraft of Austin, Texas, and Beta Technologies of Burlington, Vermont.
Bowles said Joby wants its eVTOL aircraft to operate commercially in 2025. Joby now builds these aircraft in Marina, California, and it plans to open another factory in Dayton, Ohio, near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Joby launched in 2009, and has worked since then to refine technologies such as high-torque electric motors, fast-charging batteries, and flight software that are necessary to create eVTOLs. Its team includes engineers with experience at other pioneering electric vehicle companies such as Tesla, Bowles said.
A major challenge in creating an electric aircraft is that the eVTOL’s engine has to be constantly turning to stay aloft, Bowles said. That differs from designing an electric automobile, which can coast at times and stops at traffic lights.
Bowles said Joby’s aircraft and its electric components are quiet, and show little heat signature in the air.
Part of the engineering on this aircraft included refining the shape of its rotors to “take a huge bite of air — like way more than you normally would in a traditional aircraft,” Bowles said.
This allows the aircraft’s “torque-dense” motors to turn more slowly while staying in the air, Bowles said, which helps reduce the aircraft’s sound. He said the Joby aircraft’s propellers can also tilt forward to fly, similar to the way an Osprey aircraft flies, and that using electric propulsion allows it to “do it in a much more eloquent way.”
NASA, whose Armstrong Flight Research Center is on Edwards, will be involved in the experiments at the base.
Teresa Whiting, a spokeswoman for the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, said the agency plans to work with AFWERX to find ways to safely fly such aircraft in everyday use, focusing on issues such as air traffic management and flight procedures.
“This testing will advance critical technologies needed for air taxis to fly safely in cities,” Whiting said. “NASA’s goal is to help mature the technology to push the entire air taxi and drone industry forward and to share these findings with the Federal Aviation Administration to inform new policy.
The Joby aircraft recharges fairly quickly. Most of its flights would be for about 25 miles and could recharge in less than ten minutes. Meagher said a full charge could take less than an hour.
The Joby aircraft’s electric motor will also require less maintenance than traditional vertical lift aircraft, Meagher said, similar to the way electric automobiles don’t need the oil changes a fuel-burning car requires
“The motors have one moving part,” Meagher said. “So from a maintenance perspective, from an operating cost perspective, that’s where we really see the advantage of the electrification in the industry.”
The Air Force is contemplating dozens of potential uses for Agility Prime aircraft, some of which would take advantage of how quiet an eVTOL aircraft is.
For example, the Air Force might use such aircraft to infiltrate and exfiltrate special operations troops into dangerous territory, or rescuing downed pilots or other personnel trapped behind enemy lines. The service fears that traditional helicopters would be too easily seen and targeted by advanced enemies in a future war, and has been looking for other ways it could carry out combat search-and-rescue operations.
“This is a huge milestone for the [Agility Prime] program,” Meagher said. “This is what we’ve been building up to over the last few years, going all the way from working with the companies on their testing, getting some of our folks qualified, to actually getting aircraft on the base to operate them with government operators. It’s an exciting step for us, as well as our industry partners.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.