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February 26, 2020 | International, Aerospace

USAF Launches Effort To Speed Up Commercial EVTOL Market

Graham Warwick

The U.S. Air Force has detailed its plans to accelerate the emerging advanced air mobility market, and potentially become an early adopter of electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing (eVTOL) vehicles, but is making clear it does not intend to set requirements or fund development.

Instead, the service wants to help developers along the way to commercial certification and volume production by providing testing resources and possibly enabling a near-term government public-use market for their vehicles in advance of FAA certification.

The Air Force's Agility Prime program office published its “innovative capabilities opening” (ICO) on Feb. 25, establishing a contracting framework for prototyping projects designed to show whether, as their developers claim, eVTOL vehicles can revolutionize mobility, particularly logistics.

Under the ICO framework, which will remain open until Feb. 28, 2025, the service plans to release a series of solicitations for different “areas of interest” (AOI). The first of these—AOI #1, or the “Air Race to Certification”—was also released on Feb. 25. Other AOIs could range from autonomy to manufacturing.

Under AOI #1, the Air Force office plans to issue contracts to produce test reports that will substantiate company claims for their eVTOL vehicles. Based on a test report, the service could proceed to the next step, potentially an early procurement, says Col. Nathan Diller, Agility Prime integrated product team lead.

“They can leverage that test report to get military certification that would allow near-term government use cases that would accelerate commercial certification, potentially providing revenue and data that accelerates the broader adoption of the technology,” he says.

The Air Force has not established explicit requirements for an eVTOL. Instead, it has launched studies into potential missions in which commercial vehicles—both passenger-carrying and larger unmanned aircraft—could be used. These could include distributed logistics, medevac, firefighting, search-and-rescue, disaster relief and facility security.

The Air Force is aiming for an initial operating capability (IOC) in fiscal 2023 with a “handful-plus” of vehicles in a squadron. “We have begun a series of studies to look at the business case associated with these different missions, and we have started looking at some basic constructs for what these units [operating the aircraft] might look like,” Diller says. “They may be very different units to what we are doing now.”

To qualify under the first AOI, companies must have flown their vehicles by Dec. 17, 2020. Diller says some eVTOL developers are ready to submit test reports and move on to the next step, while others will take longer. “That gives us a year to see which companies are ready, but we feel we are in a position to award contracts quickly.”

Agility Prime was provided with $10 million in funding in fiscal 2019 and $25 million in 2020. This is not money requested in the Air Force's fiscal 2021 budget, but Diller says there is a “strong desire and intent to fund” the program in fiscal 2022 and future years to get to an IOC in fiscal 2023.

The AOI calls for vehicles that can carry three to eight people, with a range greater than 200 mi., speed faster than 100 mph and endurance of more than 60 min. As well as passenger-carrying eVTOLs, Diller says Agility Prime is looking at unmanned cargo aircraft heavier than 1,320 lb. because the other services are focusing below that weight.

The Agility Prime ICO is structured to encourage participation by smaller companies and nontraditional defense contractors, but not exclude traditional Pentagon suppliers that are innovating, he says. Bidders are required to cover at least a third of the cost of the prototype project themselves.

The objective of Agility Prime is to “catalyze the commercial market by bringing our military market to bear,” Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said at a roundtable on Feb. 21. “It's equally important to make sure that commercial market catalyzes first in the U.S.,” he added.

“That's equally as important as providing the capability to the warfighter. What we don't want to happen is what happened with the small drone migration to China,” he said. “It was a commercial technology, the Pentagon didn't take a proactive stance on it, and now most of that supply chain has moved to China.”

U.S. government agencies have banned the use of Chinese-made drones, citing security concerns. “If we had realized that commercial trend and shown that the Pentagon is willing to pay a higher price for a trusted supply-chain drone, we probably could have kept part of the market here and not had to go through the security issues we have now,” he said.

“Agility Prime is saying we are not going to let that happen again,” Roper said.

Diller says the Air Force is not imposing military requirements on eVTOL developers because it wants to benefit from the low acquisition and operating costs and potentially high production volumes that could come out of the commercial market.

“Since we are not putting research and development money in this, we are going to fall into accordance with what the industry partners want to do,” he says. “Our intent is that any testing they do with us will be something that takes them along the path to commercial certification and is not diverting them.”

If the Air Force were to set requirements and fund development, “we would feel we are putting at risk a very large market that would allow us to eventually capitalize on that affordable quantity based on potential mass production at an automobile rate,” he says.

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