AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Air Force, and its subdivision, Prime, responsible for accelerating emerging commercial markets through small business innovation research (SBIR) contracts, announced last week they will host a booth and two forum sessions at EAA AirVenture later this month in Wisconsin.
AFWERX’s booth will feature electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) flight simulators from Beta Technologies and Joby Aviation, two key players in the air taxi industry. It will also display VTOL aircraft from several companies—including Archer Aviation and Elroy Air—within the Agility Prime program, a unit dedicated exclusively to eVTOL technology.
Colonel Tom Meagher, division chief of AFWERX Prime, will discuss the Air Force’s efforts to promote advanced air mobility (AAM) in a forum, titled “The Future of Air Mobility: Air Force, Electric Aircraft, and Airspace,” on July 25.
Another AAM-related panel discussion, titled “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work,” will take place on July 27 and be hosted by Ciska Bloemhard, AFWERX senior partnerships manager of airspace innovation.
“AFWERX and Prime look forward to highlighting the accomplishments not only of Agility Prime and focus of future autonomy work but also our industry partners,” said Meagher. “Several milestones were achieved in our collaborative efforts to advance eVTOL aircraft technology and establish the infrastructure necessary to support this emerging industry in the United States.”
With an annual budget north of $1 billion, AFWERX is well-equipped to promote commercial operations and military applications for cutting-edge American startups. The directorate awards SBIR contracts—often in excess of $1 million—to innovative companies, teaming them with additional resources such as highly trained airmen and guardians, a moniker for Space Force personnel.
Within AFWERX, AFVentures researches Department of Defense use cases for new aircraft, while Spark connects airman and guardian talent with emerging tech. SpaceWERX, the innovation arm of the Space Force, is also considered part of the directorate.
But the AFWERX unit with the largest presence at Oshkosh will be Prime, which uses Air Force funding, test infrastructure, certification authorities, and more to promote the commercialization of modern aircraft.
Prime itself has several subdivisions, including Orbital Prime, dedicated to on-orbit servicing, assembly, and manufacturing, and Autonomy Prime, its newest branch focused on testing and risk assessment for uncrewed flight.
But the largest initiative within Prime—and likely to have the largest presence at Oshkosh—is Agility Prime. The subdivision conducts research and testing exclusively of vertical lift technologies, such as air taxis. So far, it’s awarded more than $100 million across 23 contracts to 15 companies and has accomplished some impressive feats.
Agility Prime’s first demonstration came in 2020, when it successfully flew a flying car model manufactured by Texas-based Lift Aircraft. Since then, the division has conducted test flights with some pretty notable names in the AAM space.
In January 2022, AFWERX completed the first government remotely piloted flight of an eVTOL aircraft, manufactured by the now-defunct Kitty Hawk Corp. The project of Google co-founder Larry Page, the company was shut down in late 2022 but played a key role in the formation of Wisk Aero—its remaining shares in the air taxi firm were bought out by Boeing in May.
A few months after the Kitty Hawk demonstration, Agility Prime completed the first airman-piloted flight of an electric aircraft, Beta’s Alia eVTOL. Beta has already secured several bulk orders for Alia, most notably from UPS Flight Forward and helicopter operator Bristow Group.
But the most notable AFWERX collaboration has been with air taxi industry powerhouse Joby. In April, four Air Force pilots remotely piloted the company’s eVTOL in a key demonstration that led to the extension of Joby’s Agility Prime contract. Now, the firm will deliver up to nine five-seater air taxis to Edwards Air Force Base in California for further testing. The first two are expected to arrive in early 2024.
For the curious, footage of Agility Prime’s various demonstrations can be found on the AFWERX YouTube channel. And for those interested in learning more, AFWERX representatives will be fielding questions at Oshkosh.