On March 9, two U.S. Air Force pilots became the first airmen to fly an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle. The milestone stems from a two-year partnership between BETA Technologies, which developed the aircraft, and Agility Prime, the Air Force’s initiative to partner with the commercial sector to accelerate development of eVTOL aircraft.
Pilots Hank Griffiths and Maj. Jonathan Appleby conducted several flight demonstrations of BETA’s ALIA aircraft at the company’s Plattsburgh, N.Y., testing facility. With a wingspan of 50 feet, the ALIA can fly 250 nautical miles and carry a pilot and three standard pallets or a pilot and five passengers.
Operating under the Air Force’s AFWERX innovation arm, Agility Prime was launched in 2020 and has awarded 22 contracts to 14 eVTOL aircraft developers, as well as more than 250 contracts to small businesses and universities to conduct research and development.
In a YouTube video promoting Agility Prime, Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX director, said, “If there is an entirely new way of doing mobility in the air, we have to be in the middle of that.”
The Air Force is not the only organization immersed in the expansive advanced air mobility (AAM) market aimed at using transformational designs and technologies to move people and cargo more easily between destinations. An aircraft directory maintained by the Vertical Flight Society cites more than 200 companies working on eVTOL vehicles, from startups to aerospace OEMs like Boeing and the mobility service provider Uber.
There’s energy in the burgeoning market – and growing pains, too, as companies develop vehicles and move toward commercialization.
Stages of Development
“The challenge for the advanced air mobility market is that we’re aiming to eventually reach volumes more familiar to the automotive industry while retaining the extremely high standards required by aerospace regulations,” says Oliver Walker-Jones, head of marketing and communications at Joby Aviation Inc., a developer of eVTOL aircraft.
Transitioning from prototypes to full-scale production presents numerous hurdles for both aerospace leaders, with little expertise in high-volume production, and new players to the market.
“If you look at eVTOL aircraft, they are quite often being designed by people outside the normal aerospace industry,” says Jim Sherman, director of strategic development for the Vertical Flight Society. “They bring a different perspective, but they also don’t quite understand all of the nuances of getting to production and getting the necessary material and process certifications.”
Bill Bihlman, president of Aerolytics LLC, an aerospace market research and consulting firm, says there are four fundamental stages to developing new aircraft and each one is arduous.