At this point, we’ve all seen the Jetsonian visions of air taxis zipping people to their destinations through the air. But the early users of these services will not be commuters or soccer moms.
Rather, it’ll be the United States Department of Defense. The agency on Tuesday awarded a contract extension to Joby Aviation, one of the leaders in the young air taxi space, through Agility Prime, an initiative designed to get electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft off the ground. Agility Prime falls under AFWERX, the Air Force’s dedicated innovation arm.
In conjunction with the Air Force’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transition programs, Agility Prime provides funding and facility access to enable early flight testing and experimentation for eVTOL technology. The program resembles the Federal Aviation Administration’s BEYOND, an initiative designed to integrate unmanned aircraft systems into U.S. airspace.
Joby’s relationship with the Department of Defense goes back half a decade, but it got tighter when the company was selected for Agility Prime in 2020. Shortly after, Joby received the military’s first-ever eVTOL airworthiness approval, clearing it for further development. That same week, it acquired Uber Elevate and notched a $75 million investment from the rideshare firm.
And not long after that, the Air Force expanded Joby’s contract by over $45 million, throwing in a testing agreement with the Marine Corps to boot. The military branch will use the firm’s eVTOL aircraft to transport personnel, complete resupplies, and conduct emergency medical responses.
Now, this latest extension adds another $55 million, bringing the contract’s total value to about $131 million. It also calls for Joby to deliver and operate nine of its five-seat electric air taxis for the Air Force, the first of which are expected to be delivered next year.
They will become the first air taxis stationed at a military base and will demonstrate a range of logistics use cases, like passenger and cargo transport.
“As well as allowing us to explore the wide range of potential use cases across the U.S. government, our defense partners have also provided us with high-impact support as we prepare for commercial operations in 2025,” said Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt.
But those demonstrations will not be the first Joby has conducted with the military.
Last Thursday, four Air Force pilots remotely flew one of Joby’s air taxis at the company’s Marina, California manufacturing plant, marking the first time Air Force personnel successfully assumed remote pilot-in-command responsibilities and transitioned flight—in this context, from vertical lift to wing propulsion—for the aircraft.
“This next step of getting Air Force pilots trained and operating Joby aircraft at an Air Force installation is an incredibly important milestone for the program, providing key insights to actual operations and use case validation for Advanced Air Mobility aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, AFWERX Prime lead. “Additionally, the Joby operations provide an outstanding opportunity for accelerated learning with the other Department of Defense services and government agencies, including NASA and the FAA.”
Joby’s five-seat aircraft aren’t expected to reach the Air Force until early 2024. In the meantime, the Department of Defense will continue testing with other models. But observers can expect even more activity once the newer version arrives.