NASA, Archer Battery Testing Partnership Aims to Assert U.S. Air Taxi Leadership

Archer said the initial focus on battery cell safety is part of a ‘much larger partnership’ between it and the space agency.

Archer Midnight eVTOL NASA battery testing

NASA will study and test battery cell systems designed for Archer Aviation’s Midnight electric air taxi. [Courtesy: Archer Aviation]

The technology expected to power the next generation of commercial aircraft could have some more cosmic applications, according to NASA.

The space agency on Monday announced a new collaboration with electric aircraft manufacturer Archer Aviation to explore how the company’s battery cell systems—designed for its flagship Midnight air taxi—could one day be applied for space. 

A core focus of the collaboration, the partners said, is ensuring U.S. leadership in the next generation of air transportation. It follows air taxi simulations NASA conducted with Archer competitor Joby Aviation, and both come in the wake of the world's first electric air taxi flight for a paying customer, completed by China’s EHang in December. EHang has also begun deliveries to its operational partners.

The industry leadership of Archer, Joby, and other American air taxi manufacturers is being challenged by Chinese firms, such as EHang and AutoFlight, as well as European rivals such as Volocopter. U.S. lawmakers and government agencies fear those companies could undermine American firms by beating them to commercial launch and scale.

“Many countries around the world are challenging the U.S. in this new era of flight, and our country is at risk of losing its global leadership position unless we work together, government and industry, to ensure we seize the moment and pioneer this new era of aviation technology, which stands to benefit all Americans,” said Adam Goldstein, founder and CEO of Archer.

The initial NASA project will study and test Archer’s battery packs to see how they can safely support advanced air mobility (AAM) operations. The goal is to validate the technology for electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) air taxis like Midnight, electric conventional takeoff and landing (eCTOL) designs such as Beta Technologies' CX300, and potentially even usage in space.

According to Archer, the initial focus on battery cell safety is part of a “much larger partnership” with NASA under a Space Act Agreement for the advancement of “mission-critical” eVTOL aircraft technology.

The company believes the maturation of battery cell technology, in particular, will be key to U.S. mass production and adoption of eVTOL air taxis and other AAM services. Following testing, it plans to share the results with the industry to help it develop more efficient battery system supply chains.

“AAM promises to provide substantial public benefits to our communities, including transforming how urban and rural communities live and commute by maximizing mobility, bolstering cargo and logistics options, and creating pathways to manufacturing jobs and other ladders of social and economic opportunity,” Archer said in a news release. “Core to unlocking this potential is designing, developing, and mass producing batteries and electric motors that are purpose built for electric aircraft.”

Archer’s battery packs are designed specifically to power Midnight’s proprietary electric powertrain, which the company is beginning to mass manufacture. It said the cell’s cylindrical form factor “has a track record of safety, performance and scalability proven through decades of volume manufacturing, deployed across many applications globally, including in millions of electric vehicles.”

NASA will test the battery system’s safety, energy, and power performance capabilities using the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), one of the world’s most advanced high speed X-ray facilities. It will seek to understand how the cells function in “extreme abuse cases,” perhaps as a way to simulate the harsh environment of space.

NASA—which in addition to Archer and Joby is collaborating with the U.S. Air Force and other partners on an array of AAM initiatives—is one of many government agencies aiming to assert U.S. leadership in emerging aviation.

AFWERX, the innovation arm of the Air Force, is working with Archer, Joby, and plenty of other manufacturers in a series of “quid-pro-quo” arrangements. The manufacturers receive access to Air Force resources and feedback that can speed aircraft development, testing, and commercialization, and the Air Force gets to explore defense use cases for technology not yet on the market. AFWERX is also collaborating with the FAA to share flight test data and capabilities.

The FAA has been tasked with spearheading the growth of the domestic AAM industry. So far, the agency has released an AAM Concept of Operations, which will serve as the early blueprint for regulations and operational rules to enable scale. The first stage of that blueprint is detailed further in the regulator’s Innovate28 plan—a timeline of goals and milestones culminating in initial AAM operations by the time the 2028 Summer Olympics arrive in Los Angeles.

However, the U.S. may be four years behind its global competition: Germany’s Volocopter, China’s AutoFlight, and several other non-U.S. manufacturers plan to demonstrate or commercially launch their air taxis at the Paris Olympic Games this summer.

Both Archer and Joby anticipate entry into service in 2025, pending type certification of their respective aircraft. But though they may arrive on the scene after their foreign counterparts, the opportunity to lead remains. Later entrants will be able to evaluate the successes (or failures) of the initial wave of aircraft. Through collaborations such as the one between Archer and NASA, they’ll have more time to research safe, scaled operations.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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