The U.S. is hoping to launch air taxi routes at scale in time for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games. But like many novel technologies, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft may see their first action in the military.
In what appears to be one of the largest-ever contracts for an eVTOL manufacturer, San Jose, California-based Archer Aviation agreed to deliver as many as six Midnight aircraft to the U.S. Air Force in an agreement worth up to $142 million. Other military branches will be able to leverage the contracts for additional projects, which could see that number rise.
“This historic agreement reflects the steadfast commitment by our armed forces to embrace the cutting-edge technology our eVTOL aircraft offer,” said Adam Goldstein, founder and CEO of Archer. “It’s clear that the development and commercialization of eVTOL technology continues to remain a national priority.”
AFWERX is the innovation arm of the Air Force, focused on uncovering defense applications for emerging aircraft while speeding their path to commercial launch. Since 2021, Archer has partnered with AFWERX’s Agility Prime—a subdivision dedicated wholly to vertical lift technologies—to explore defense cases for its eVTOL and accelerate entry into service.
Agility Prime plans to deploy Midnight for personnel transport, logistics support, rescue operations, and more. The agreement also calls for Archer to share flight test data and certification-related test reports, provide pilot training, and develop maintenance and repair operations.
“eVTOL aircraft represent the cusp of the third revolution in aerospace, and these aircraft and their descendants will drive advances in capabilities and efficiency,” said Colonel Tom Meagher, the lead for AFWERX Agility Prime programs. “Our contracts with Archer Aviation provide the U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Air Force the opportunity to play a role in ensuring from the onset, and as the technology evolves, that we unlock the many benefits these aircraft have to offer the U.S. military.”
The Aircraft that Could Replace Helicopters
Archer recently completed the build of its first Midnight production aircraft, which it expects to certify with the FAA. It believes the aircraft’s VTOL capabilities, 1,000-pound payload, and low noise profile make it attractive to military operations as a safer, quieter alternative to helicopters.
First revealed in November, Midnight received airworthiness criteria from the FAA the following month. Capable of flying up to 100 sm (87 nm) at 130 knots, the aircraft is optimized for carrying a pilot and four passengers on 20 sm (17 nm) urban trips, with 12 minutes of charge time in between.
Midnight flies on six battery packs, each powering a pair of electric motors coupled to a small propeller. Six propellers are mounted on either side of the aircraft’s fixed wings, with the front propellers tilting forward to provide added thrust during cruise flight. The eVTOL uses avionics from Garmin and Safran and is up to 45dB quieter than a helicopter.
Archer believes Midnight’s short charging time, high speed (compared to a car), and focus on short, regional trips will make the company cost-competitive with rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. So far, it has committed to ferry passengers to and from Chicago O’Hare Airport (KORD) and Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR) with United, which placed a $1 billion order for Midnight aircraft in 2021.
Currently, the firm is working toward a G-2 means of compliance for its FAA-issued airworthiness criteria. It expects to begin type certification testing with the agency in 2024 ahead of planned launches in 2025.
Among eVTOL manufacturers, Archer has a fairly tight relationship with the government. It’s one of a handful of air taxi companies in the FAA’s type certification process and just nabbed former Acting Administrator Billy Nolen for the Chief Safety Officer job. Nolen’s experience with the FAA side of certification should be a boon to the young company.
Archer is also backed by a manufacturing partnership with Stellantis, which just ramped up in June. Construction of the company’s Covington, Georgia, mass production plant is now well underway, and it expects the facility to open in mid-2024. Initially, the plant will produce 650 aircraft per year, but Archer expects that to one day rise to 2,300.