—a significant milestone for the Air Force’s Agility Prime program.

The US Air Force (USAF) awarded Joby Aviation, a company specializing in future aviation, a $55 million contract extension to supply electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as part of its participation efforts in the Agility Prime program.

The additional contract increases the total program funding to $131 million.

The Agility Prime program is a USAF initiation launched in April 2020 as part of its efforts to accelerate the development of the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry, as well as seek a cleaner, faster, more efficient way for the military to mobilize troops, deliver cargo, and conduct disaster relief missions.

With the approved $55 million contract extension, Joby will now have the option to provide up to nine five-seat, low-noise, zero-operating emissions eVTOL aircraft to the service, with two of these units expected to touch down at Edward Air Force Base by early 2024. Once delivered, these electric-powered air taxis will become the first to operate at a US military base.

AFWERX x Joby Aviation

The Agility Prime program, led by the Air Force Work Project (AFWERX), is a vertical lift initiative that aims to accelerate the development of electric-powered aircraft in partnership with the commercial industry. The program seeks to drive the third revolution in aerospace and aviation toward new heights by 2023.

Joby is among the handful of companies established to focus on developing eVTOLs and has been working with the Defense Department for over five years. The company has provided testing facilities, early operational experiences, and a partial offset to its research and development (R&D) costs since the program’s onset.

Besides USAF, other US military branches also expressed interest in Joby’s eVTOL capabilities, including the US Army, Navy, and Marine Corps.

The additional funding comes after four Air Force pilots successfully conducted a maiden pilot-in-command flight, including a vertical to windborne transition, at Joby’s facility in Marina, California.

In a press release, Joby stated that these Air Force pilots remotely steered the flight from the ground after completing classroom-based and simulator training. Moreover, the company noted that the conducted trials are part of the service’s comprehensive approach to exploring the potential future role of eVTOL aircraft.

“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,” said Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, AFWERX Prime Lead.

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Meagher also highlighted the company’s role in accelerating the R&D of other military branches and government agencies, including NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), who had shown interest in the technology of the future eVTOL.

In 2022, Joby set the record for the highest operational altitude reached by an eVTOL, flying to more than 11,000 feet and a speed of nearly 174 knots (200 mph). The company also set an earlier record that earned them the approval for military airworthiness in late 2020.

“Joby has been a part of Agility Prime since its inception, allowing us access to critical government test facilities and providing funding for us to further prove out the reliability and efficiency of the design,” Meagher said told Air & Space Forces Magazine in January this year.

Future Aviation

An eVTOL, simply put, is a helicopter (VTOL) variant that uses electric power rather than relying on traditional fossil fuel. Often referred to as air taxis or flying taxis, the development of the electric helicopter aims to address evolving challenges in urban air mobility, allowing for faster and more efficient transportation in heavily congested cities.

The concept emerged in the late 2000s after NASA uploaded a rendered video demonstrating its Puffin eVTOL concept on YouTube, which subsequently went viral. See the video below.

Since then, there has been a significant increase in interest among aerospace manufacturers, including Joby Aviation.

The initial design of NASA’s eVTOL prototype allowed only one passenger, who would also serve as the pilot. However, companies that later joined the electric aircraft bandwagon were able to increase the crew capacity to up to six, including the pilot.

While each company has its own version of the eVTOL, some common technical features include electric motors and batteries instead of combustion engines; capable of taking off and landing vertically; generating less noise and fewer emissions; often having multiple rotors or propellers, highlighting technical redundancy; and again, can carry up to six. Additionally, manufacturers design most eVTOLs to operate either autonomously or semi-autonomously.

Meanwhile, eVTOL companies have been ensuring to meet the uncompromising safety standards set by the FAA, as one might wonder.

According to Farhan Gandhi, the director of the Center for Mobility with Vertical Lift, for companies to get the regulators’ approval, they must 1) ensure these aircraft can operate safely and 2) demonstrate or show the recovery mechanisms of the aircraft in case of mechanical failure.

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