The Air Force Has Big Plans for Its Flying Car in 2021

The Joby S4 is a five-place aircraft that takes off and lands vertically.
The Joby S4 is a five-place aircraft that takes off and lands vertically and transitions to winged flight. (Photo courtesy of Joby Aviation)

The U.S. Air Force is planning to put its futuristic flying car through a series of tests next year that will help determine how the service can use the vehicle, at home or deployed.

The Air Force Research Lab's AFWERX innovation program announced the service's Agility Prime has cleared several regulations that moves planning forward for its "organic resupply bus," or ORB. The flying car, the S4 made by aerospace company Joby Aviation, passed a Technical Airworthiness Authority (TAA) evaluation, the initial step that enables the unusual aircraft "to fly under Air Force contract in early 2021," the service said in a December release.

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Upcoming flights will give analysts more information to "assess the utility of the aircraft in missions like distributed logistics, medical evacuation, firefighting, disaster response, search and rescue, and humanitarian-relief operations," the release said.

The Air Force expects the tests will provide crucial data to the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial use, and to NASA, which is interested in emerging electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing technologies (eVTOL) use for its lunar lander spacecraft.

The service has been working with Joby Aviation and BETA Technologies through the "Agility Prime Air Race" initiated in February; in total, 19 companies have applied to participate in the program. One will eventually win a procurement contract, the service said.

In April, Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the plan is to have 30 electric airborne vehicles by the end of the decade.

Roper said the partnership between commercial industry and government to produce flying cars will make way for the domestic market to benefit from the effort as well.

"Since we have put our hand up and said, 'We want to accelerate this market so that it's dual-use, the military wants to buy the exact same vehicle that would be available domestically,' companies have shared with us privately that they have seen the amount of investment given by venture capitalists go up," Roper said at the time. "And they expect that that will continue the further we go through the door on competition."

The military could end up using a range of ORBs, including larger ones for cargo and smaller ones solely for moving people, explained Air Mobility Command's Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost.

"For the Air Force, specifically Air Mobility Command, Agility Prime has the potential to bring next generation agility to movement, delivery, sustainment and air medical evacuation to the battlespace," Van Ovost said in the December release.

Other applications include missions that the military conducts in coordination with other federal agencies or civilian organizations, such as humanitarian aid and disaster response, aerial medical supply delivery, search and rescue and wildfire suppression, the release said.

The Air Force hopes to begin fielding the aircraft as early as 2023.

The first tests will occur in Ohio, home of the research lab located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

The service also broke ground on a new simulation and experimentation facility it will use for Agility Prime at the Ohio Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport. The airport will house the electric vehicles' charging station, the release said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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