The U.S. Air Force has gotten the ball rolling on its recently announced contracts with electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft manufacturer Archer Aviation.
Archer on Wednesday received the Air Force’s initial installment of nearly $1 million, the first of what is expected to be many payments under the agreement valued at up to $142 million. In return, Archer sent the Air Force a mobile flight simulator, specified as a deliverable under the contracts.
The transaction marks the beginning of Archer’s relationship with AFWERX, the Air Force’s innovation arm, and its vertical lift division, Agility Prime, which also works with advanced air mobility (AAM) rivals Joby Aviation and Beta Technologies.
The arrangement will eventually culminate in flight testing of Archer’s five-seater Midnight eVTOL with Air Force pilots on board. First, the company will deliver up to six of the aircraft to an unnamed Air Force Base. A time frame has not yet been specified, but the first contracted payment sets things in motion.
Archer hopes to begin ferrying up to four passengers at a time (plus a pilot) to and from airports in partnership with United Airlines in 2025. It will start with air taxi routes near O’Hare International Airport (KORD) in Chicago and between Downtown Manhattan and Newark Liberty International Airport (KEWR) in New Jersey.
“Archer’s eVTOL technology can help maintain the United States’ position as a global leader in aviation,” said Adam Goldstein, the company’s founder and CEO. “To see our historic contract with the U.S. Air Force move from signature to execution at a rapid pace is a reflection of the strong commitment that the U.S. Department of Defense has made to securing our country’s future by investing in transformational technology.”
Getting the Ball Rolling
Initially, Archer and the Air Force will use the mobile simulator to begin training pilots on Midnight’s flight capabilities. The partners will use it to assess the air taxi’s flight controls and familiarize Air Force personnel with the operational capabilities of Archer’s commercial platform. And down the line, there is potential for the military to develop a Midnight variant for its own use.
Archer will also deploy its mobile simulator to public and industry events to raise awareness of eVTOL designs and encourage more engagement with the novel tech. Other deliverables on the way to the Air Force include wind tunnel testing reports, as well as project specific certification plans (PSCPs) and subject specific certification plans (SSCPs) submitted to the FAA.
Once training in the simulator is complete, Archer will move to piloted flight testing, a milestone rival Joby announced it had reached Wednesday. But first, it will need to deliver the first Midnight aircraft to the Air Force. Joby hit that mark last month with the ahead-of-schedule delivery of its own air taxi to Edwards Air Force Base in California.
Billed as “a safer and quieter alternative to helicopters,” Midnight runs on a proprietary electric powertrain with six independent battery packs, creating a low-noise profile. It combines six rigid propellers for vertical lift with a half dozen tilt props that rotate toward the nose as it transitions to forward flight.
Archer believes the aircraft’s 1,000-pound target payload and 150 mph (130 knots) top speed—combined with its ability to take off vertically like a rotorcraft—could make it ideal for military rapid response, personnel transport, logistics support, or rescue operations. The firm also said Midnight will be more agile and cost-effective to transport, operate, and maintain in the field than the present aircraft deployed for these missions.
While the air taxi will have a maximum range of 100 sm (87 nm), Archer has optimized it for short hops with its planned commercial service in mind. Competing with on-demand rideshare firms, Midnight will primarily make back-to-back 20 sm (17 nm) flights, charging for about 12 minutes between trips. Archer asserts the model will make its air taxi business competitive with ground-based counterparts such as Uber and Lyft.
Where Archer Stands
Midnight’s lightweight carbon fiber composite airframe is developed by automaker Stellantis, which in January announced an exclusive mass production deal with the eVTOL manufacturer. Stellantis also boosted Archer with a $70 million acceleration investment, part of an August funding round.
In June, the partnership advanced from “concept phase” to “execution phase” as the companies ramped up construction on Archer’s high-volume manufacturing plant in Covington, Georgia. The facility at Covington Municipal Airport (KCVC) will initially span 350,000 square feet and produce up to 650 units per year, beginning in 2024. Eventually, though, the plant could more than triple in size and churn out as many as 2,000 aircraft annually.
Joby, however, may have it beat. Last month, it selected Dayton, Ohio—once home to the Wright brothers—as the site for its 200,000-square-foot scaled manufacturing plant. But the company said the 140-acre plot at Dayton International Airport (KDAY) could one day allow the facility to span 2 million square feet.
Short term, Joby’s manufacturing plant is expected to begin full-scale operations in 2025 and produce 500 air taxis per year. The company put down $500 million of its own money and could leverage up to $325 million in state and local incentives to support construction.
Archer and Joby, along with Boeing-owned Wisk Aero, are considered the leaders in the U.S. eVTOL air taxi space. Germany’s Lilium and Volocopter are also key players. All of them are awaiting type certification of their aircraft before they can launch commercial operations, but some are further along than others.
Joby appears to have a slight edge on Archer in terms of flight testing, but both are eyeing entry into service in 2025. Wisk, which plans to fly its air taxi autonomously from the jump, is looking a bit further out to 2028.
Lilium, also targeting a 2025 entry, has made the most progress of the firms when it comes to certification on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s the only eVTOL manufacturer with individual certification bases from both the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). However, Joby and Archer appear to be fully focused on the U.S. market before thinking about an international expansion.
While entry into service is not the be-all and end-all, Volocopter looks like the leader on that front. It flew its first crewed tests at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in 2021, long before its rivals. It’s also done piloted tests in Germany, South Korea, and France, where it expects to launch commercially in Paris following AAM demos at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
Notably, Volocopter just signed a deal with Houston-based helicopter operator Bristow Group to deliver two VoloCity eVTOLs to the U.S., with an option for 78 more. The partners are aiming to launch in the U.S. after Volocopter receives EASA type certification in 2024. Unlike Lilium, the company has a concurrent certification path with the FAA, which should allow it to receive approval to fly in the U.S. shortly after EASA gives its greenlight.
Volocopter could hamper Archer and other U.S. eVTOL manufacturers by gobbling up early market share, if it can stick to its timeline. Or, it could assist them by introducing the U.S. market to the novel technology, potentially increasing the base demand for AAM services when they do enter the market. Either way, expect Archer to leverage its relationship with the Air Force to gain the upper hand.