An artist’s conception of an urban air mobility environment, where air vehicles with a variety of missions and with or without pilots, are able to interact safely and efficiently. NASA / Lillian Gipson
Photo: Staff Writer
Photo: Staff Writer

Wright-Patt to help foster creation of flying cars for the military

Flying cars may seem like a futuristic fantasy, but the leader of Air Force acquisitions thinks they’re a “low-hanging opportunity” that Wright-Patterson Air Force Base can pioneer over the next few years.

To do so, the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patt is launching a new initiative called Agility Prime. The lab’s program will assist private companies in testing prototypes and technology for flying cars throughout the country.

The project represents a recent shift in how Will Roper, assistant secretary for acquisition, wants to approach Air Force projects and research more like a start-up would, said Loren Thompson, a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute.

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“The Air Force technology model now is based on thinking like it’s a tech company and investing in promising innovations,” Thompson said.

Agility Prime is still in the beginning stages and AFRL is trying to get the word out to companies that may want to eventually contract with the government.

In exchange for their interest and help, AFRL will offer companies the opportunity to test their flying vehicles in military air space. It will allow companies to put their flying cars in action without having to jump through as many regulatory hoops required by the Federal Aviation Administration for testing, said Daniel Goddard, director of venture capital partnerships with the lab.

“I’ve been challenging our acquisition community to think about where our defense market has value,” Roper said during an Air Force conference in September. “There’s an area we’re really excited to explore with commercial industry and that’s in the self flying cars, technology boom, that we think will happen.”

An artist’s conception of a future where different aircraft - vertical takeoff, traditional takeoff, crewed, uncrewed - safely perform a variety of daily missions in rural to urban environments. NASA/Advanced Concepts Laboratory
Photo: Staff Writer

AFRL’s initiative comes a couple of years after NASA launched a similar one, said Goddard. The space agency’s “Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge” seeks to help develop vehicles that could taxi people from one point to another in a city, according to NASA.

NASA and its partners plan to conduct testing later this year and will start field demonstrations in 2022. Goddard expects AFRL’s challenge to run through 2021 and said he and other program leaders want to test vehicles around the country including in Ohio.

AFRL’s timeline is a quick one which is also part of Roper’s approach to projects, Goddard said.

“Dr. Roper is really pushing faster acquisition and new ways of doing business, frankly,” Goddard said. “So, there’s a lot of learning as we go for AFRL as we deal with some non traditional partners.”

‘The first stage’

The Air Force, Goddard said, is primarily focused on how a new type of flying vehicle could transport supplies and soldiers on bases and battlefronts.

AFRL will be looking for a new flying vehicle that is either electric or some sort of hybrid that is able to take off vertically, Goddard said.

Electric vehicles make less noise and Goddard said they would allow the Air Force to conduct operations more discreetly in war zones than helicopters. A flying car that is able to take off vertically, would also be useful in areas where no runway is available.

“What this move signals is that technology is driving the future of warfare, very similar to the way technology is driving the future of transport in the rest of the marketplace,” Thompson said.

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AFRL is still determining the specifics of just how much it would like a new flying vehicle to do.

Ideally, there would be different models that could carry a single person or several people, Goddard said. It would also be ideal, he said, for these flying cars to be able to transport anywhere from 500 to 2,000 pounds of cargo and have the potential to be equipped with weapons.

“In a way, that’s stage two. The first stage of this is to just ask the commercial space: what can you do for us now?” Goddard said. “What we don’t want to do is levy a bunch of military requirements on these small companies and they freak out.”

A replacement?

Reports have indicated that the DoD is exploring options to replace or reduce the usage of the V-22 Osprey with a flying car. The V-22 is an aircraft capable of lifting vertically off the ground like a helicopter while also being able to fly at high speeds and altitude like a fixed-wing plane, according to its manufacturer Boeing.

“So flying someone from LaGuardia Airport to downtown Manhattan, for instance…(It’s) relatively shorter range, carrying passengers,” Goddard said. “It’s the same kind of ability that we’re looking for in Agility Prime, but when you do a military application you’ve got to take in a lot more considerations obviously.”

Rising costs have made the V-22 a prime target for a cheaper alternative, though no outright replacement program is in the works, Goddard said.

Also on display at the Stuart Air Show, the V-22 Osprey can take off and land like a helicopter and then fly like an airplane. This feature gives the aircraft incredible speed, range and versatility. Win McNamee/Getty Images

More than $27 billion has been appropriated for the V-22 program since 1983, according to information provided to the Congressional Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The price per V-22 aircraft ballooned to around $120 million in 2009.

But, even if a flying car is able to conduct some of the missions a V-22 completes today, Goddard said it probably won’t have all of the abilities of the older aircraft.

“There’s only so much power you’re going to be able to get out of these and a V-22 is probably going to always beat that,” Goddard said. “But, the V-22…has high sustainment costs and they’d like to be able to maybe aggregate that somehow.”

‘Bouncing from place to place’

While AFRL is focused on the use of flying cars in the military, NASA and some prominent private companies are looking at the potential vehicles for civilian use.

NASA’s initiative aims to accelerate the certification and approval of future air taxis while developing an “airspace system architecture” for the vehicles to fly within. It will also seek to develop flight guidelines and evaluate passenger perspectives on flying cars, according to the space agency’s website.

NASA is already working to develop a flight control system with help from Uber, the popular ride hailing smartphone app. It’s partnerships like those that will make flying taxis a reality quickly, said Jay Ratliff, a locally-based national aviation expert.

The Air Force is developing a program to harness the technology and research done on flying cars. EVA HAMBACH/ GETTY IMAGES
Photo: Staff Writer

“It’s going to be commonplace to see these things bouncing from place to place,” Ratliff said.

A team at Uber is focused on developing the company’s own set of air taxis. They will take off and land vertically from “skyports” in downtown areas and on top of skyscrapers, according to Uber’s website.

The company plans to launch its Uber Air flights first in Los Angeles, Dallas and Melbourne, Australia. Uber will start test flights next year and has a goal of starting commercial flights in 2023, according to the company.

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With advancements in driverless cars, Ratliff said passenger drones may make more sense for commuting in and around cities. Drones with autonomous software, Ratliff said, could eliminate the issue of licensing pilots and the dangers that come with dramatically increasing the number of vehicles in they sky.

“I hate the idea of having an air taxi that we fly, it’s just problematic,” Ratliff said. “We see how certain people drive on the road…I think the last thing we want in the sky is that idiot flying.”

‘Thinking imaginatively’

It makes sense, Thompson said, that AFRL is on the leading edge in finding and creating a flying car.

The lab has long been at the forefront of aviation technology and helped put the first man on the moon in 1969 by helping to develop everything from spacesuits to rockets.

“AFRL, as usual, is sort of like the nexus for thinking imaginatively about technology’s future in the Air Force and the military as a whole,” Thompson said.

Goddard said he and his fellow AFRL colleagues will be “turning over all the rocks” to try to find the latest and greatest vertical flying technology. Goddard already has his eye on a Cincinnati company he’d like to work with that he said he couldn’t name.

It’s possible, Goddard said, that a key piece of technology that will help flying cars finally take off may come from Wright-Patt’s own backyard.

Between Wright-Patt, the National Unmanned Aerial Systems Training and Certification Center at Sinclair Community College and the overwhelming local presence of military contractors and related organizations, Goddard said Dayton is primed to contribute.

“Ohio obviously has a strong aerospace industrial complex down here in the Dayton-Cincinnati region and up in Cleveland with NASA..up there,” Goddard said. “There’s plenty of heritage and hopefully we can tap into it.”

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