Like some fantastical flying car contraption emerging from the fertile mind of Dr. Seuss, the Air Force's wild-looking electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle (eVTOL) made quite an impression amid a gathering of researchers, aviators, and military brass during a demonstration flight last week at Camp Mabry, Texas just outside Austin.
In the headline photo above, LIFT Aircraft chief executive officer Matt Chasen is behind the controls of the military's new craft named Hexa, a project of Agility Prime, a non-traditional program whose goals are to accelerate commercial markets for advanced air mobility vehicles.
AFWERX Director Col. Nathan Diller was joined by Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown, Jr., and Air Force Chief Master Sgt. JoAnne S. Bass to observe this remarkable machine and its impressive advancements in electric VTOL flight precisely 112 years after the Wright Brothers delivered their first military aircraft.
Texas-based LIFT Aircraft, one of Agility Prime's initial participants and contract recipients, provided the aircraft test as part of the program's “Air Race to Certification” endeavor. Hexa is a radical, single-seat eVTOL aircraft powered by a network of 18 overhead electric motors and propellers, and flew for over four minutes in a presentation that saw the Seussian invention rise, hover, turn, and fly forward within 40 feet of the ground.
"Agility Prime is a program with a vision of world impact,” announced Barrett earlier this year for the program launch. “The thought of an electric vertical take-off and landing vehicle — a flying car — might seem straight out of a Hollywood movie, but by partnering today with stakeholders across industries and agencies, we can set up the United States for this aerospace phenomenon.”
Founded in 2017 by the Secretary of the Air Force, AFWERX is a collection of Air Force innovators and creators striving to connect Airmen to smart solutions for project funding, industry collaboration, or professional guidance, and is formed by active duty Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, Air Force Civilian Service, and private contractor personnel.
"We now have over fifteen of the leading aircraft manufacturers in the world applying to partner with Agility Prime, with many of them already on contract,” said Col. Nathan Diller, AFWERX director and Agility Prime lead. “This flight today marks the first of many demonstrations and near term flight tests designed to reduce the technical risk and prepare for Agility Prime fielding in 2023.”
LIFT plans to officially certify the extraordinary aircraft under the Federal Aviation Administration’s Part 103 as an ultralight and let the paying public take it for leisurely spins at scenic locations around the globe following an hour-long training session and no pilot's license needed.
“We believe the market for experiential entertainment flying of electric multi rotors will be huge,” Matt Chasen, founder and CEO of LIFT Aircraft told Avionics International. “We will soon launch the first consumer flying experience - where anyone can fly with one hour of training, no pilots license required for less than $250 per flight.”
LIFT has already completed nearly 600 manned and unmanned test flights of the Hexa to date, representing a total of 10-15 hours flight time using three pre-production aircraft and a team of four different pilots.
“We are developing a touch screen interface - actually an iPad app running on a 12.9” iPad Pro,” Chasen explained. “The touch screen app is not required for flight and so treated as a supplemental device. Other user interface elements are the joystick and also an audio/communications system that will eventually allow for some voice control features."
Amid the multitude of competing eVTOL machines, like the Airbus SE CityAirbus or the Bell Air Taxi, all in a mad rush to develop safe and efficient transportation services, Chasen's company hopes to target mainstream recreational use.
LIFT's goals include delivering a fleet of Hexa craft for memorable flights over scenic, relatively traffic-free regions such as the San Francisco Bay, Seattle's Elliot Bay, the Santa Monica waterfront, and Dubai’s Marina. Starting in early 2021, LIFT intends to embark on a 12-18 month tour of the United States, offering flights to over 15,000 waitlisted people and new paying customers.
“We believe the market for eVTOL will develop first with Ultralights under Part 103, then with public use including military, emergency medical, law enforcement and coast guard rescue, etc.,” Chasen added. “Only after these aircraft get certified and are proven at the levels of safety required for passenger transportation will they be used for transportation.”