How the US military is teaming up to get advanced aircraft flying

Deep Dive

When the AFWERX Agility Prime programme was launched in 2020, it was focused on planting the stars and stripes atop the summit of Mount eVTOL certification.

With a number of pathways to that peak all but mapped out between the frontrunners and regulators, attention has turned to scaling (quite literally) the range of associated mountains such as airspace integration, security, automation and infrastructure. That expansion of focus and investment, has had a previously unseen collaborative impact on the US military.

Traditionally the US Air Force, Army and Navy would work individually with the FAA on their certification. Now plans for a tradition-breaking joint collaboration and single evaluation airworthiness effort on the military side will put contracted startups in the best position yet to undergo commercial certification, according to Darshan “Dash” Divakaran, head of Airspace Innovation and Prime Partnerships at AFWERX.

Although eVTOL and AAM firms are brimming with former traditional aerospace employees, they are not similar companies, Divakaran tells us. “The challenge of aircraft certification takes as long as it takes. If you are aware about the process, if you know how aircraft certification takes place, then you might be able to expedite it. Not that it gets any simpler,” he explains. But with the Department of Defense (DoD) as a potential customer it can help developers explore what a military certification might look like, which helps the developer do the same with the FAA.

The MoU of MoUs

Soon realising a multi-layer approach was less efficient than working together, the FAA and AFWERX signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in early 2022 on military certification. This also had the added benefit of showing the FAA how the military certifies advanced aircraft.

“Early last year an MoU was signed between the AFWERX airworthiness office and the FAA’s AIR-700 [the agency’s Compliance and Airworthiness Division] which is focused on working together across aircraft certification efforts,” says Divakaran. “But later this month, on October 25th, the FAA and AFWERX is signing another MoU which is focused on everything advanced air mobility and emerging technologies. This is going to be the MoU of MoUs.”

The agreement will see a continued expansion in focus. Divakaran explains: “We were now thinking, ‘Ok what is beyond certification?’ There are other challenges that come into focus because when you want to integrate these vehicles; we have to make sure that all areas have been looked at. From the perspective of the DoD, our key areas are aligned with this because when we want to integrate these vehicles into military airspace we also have to look at infrastructure, airspace integration, security… so there is synergy here.”

Now, AFWERX Agility Prime is part of the US Department of Transportation’s AAM Interagency Working Group which consists of 22 members including the DoD, NASA and the National Security Council. “Along the way AFWERX Agility Prime has become a core agency in the national AAM strategy,” adds Divakaran.

The beauty for aircraft developers working with the military is flexibility to take additional risk compared with the FAA, letting them push the aircraft to its limits and truly understand the safety case faster. The military can then provide third party validation to the FAA.

“In the past, agencies like army and navy would work individually with the FAA on their certification. But in the last year or two the US Air Force, Army, NASA and other services have come together to talk about a joint collaboration,” says Divakaran. “The opportunity that we have created for the companies means they are able to be smarter and better-prepared when it comes to requirements on the commercial side. Also, when they go through the military certification there could be certain areas that do not need to be repeated. Just as we use the FAA’s certification when we work with these companies, similarly some of our efforts can be integrated when it comes to their certification.”

The phase system

AFWERX Agility Prime’s contract system work is designed as a competitive process that’s measured over three phases. Traditionally, the duration it would take to adopt a new aircraft technology into the Air Force would mean that by the time that was completed the technology would often be outdated. So to expedite that and encourage the rapid acquisition of new technologies, AFWERX created the “air race” three phase contract system detailed under 10 U.S. Code § 4022.

Phase 1 is known as the evaluation stage. In this phase, companies can submit their “one-pager” which will be evaluated by the programme to ascertain if the company is ready to go to phase 2, according to Divakaran. The second phase is where AFWERX gets boots on the ground and practically evaluates the claims made about the technology in phase 1. If and when a startup passes the second stage, phase 3 will see AFWERX begin to abridge many of the costs required in the certification and testing efforts. “This has been very beneficial for the industry because we are the only agency today that is putting money towards these efforts and help other agencies get the necessary data to influence new policymaking,” adds Divakaran.

More dual-uses than ever before

There are more aerospace technologies in development with both commercial and defence use cases than ever before. “When you think about distributed electric propulsion, various powertrains, autonomy and additive manufacturing these have prompted the next revolution in aerospace,” says Divakaran.

Over the past three years, AFWERX has invested $345m across 36 companies. This figure is predicted to grow as technology matures; however, AFWERX is also being more selective earlier in the evaluation stage. Which could mean the figure drops if the right technologies are not there to be invested in, says Divakaran. “At the early stage we were just trying to understand how these aircraft can be beneficial. Now we have subject matter experts, we are working with developers who are working with government agencies therefore our requirements are becoming more focused. So it could be more, it could be less, but it will continue.”

Which market will operate commercially first? Divakaran says there are a lot of colliding opinions here, but the general consensus, at AFWERX and across the wider industry, is that non-people-carrying services will be first. “Anything on the cargo and logistics side, those will operate first. With those kinds of operations, we see there is more capability on our side to expedite those efforts. But at the same time we are not picking any favourites with these companies or their capabilities.

“We are putting pilots in these aircraft, the developers are putting their people in to test as well. But at the end of the day, I think logistics and cargo will be a faster process compared to putting people in,” he says.

Of the 36 awardees of an Agility Prime contract, Joby and Archer are two of the most prominent. Pencilled in to receive FAA type certification first and second respectively, the programme’s eVTOL poster boys have commercial TC set for 2025. They also have programme contracts worth up to just over $270m.

Joby has just begun piloted tests after delivering the first of nine aircraft to US government agencies, whilst the DoD has six aircraft on order from Archer. This means in the next 18 months more is going to be learnt about how eVTOLs fit into our airspaces than ever before. And with that, where future investment will be directed.

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