The Air Force’s big new electric taxi flies at 200 mph

The Air Force’s big new electric taxi flies at 200 mph

Today, members of the military and an executive from Joby Aviation used a giant pair of scissors to cut a ribbon in front of an electric flying machine parked at Edwards Air Force Base in California. 

The moment is significant because, with the exception of small electric drones, the other aircraft that the Department of Defense have on hand are powered by fossil fuels. Cargo planes, fighter jets, helicopters, and other flying machines that can carry people or hefty cargo all burn petroleum products. But the flying machine behind the ribbon, an air taxi from a company called Joby Aviation, is a different kind of craft—like an EV, it’s powered by batteries. The aircraft has now taken up residence at Edwards Air Force Base in California, a facility famous as a flight testing center, where it might patrol or inspect the rugged landscape. 

The electric aircraft sports six large propellers that can tilt, enabling the machine to take off and land vertically and also fly horizontally, like a regular plane. Think of it as something like a small version of the military tiltrotor aircraft that already exist, such as the V-22 Osprey or the V-280 Valor. It has space for four passengers (or 1,000 pounds of cargo), one pilot, and can fly at speeds of 200 miles per hour.

[Related: The US military’s tiniest drone feels like it flew straight out of a sci-fi film]

Joby has been testing and developing electric aircraft for years; it flew a “subscale demonstrator,” or small version of the plane, back in 2015. The full-sized aircraft that Joby has delivered to the Air Force is the first production prototype to come off the company’s line in Marina, California, in June. “It’s massive” as a moment, JoeBen Bevirt, the company’s CEO, tells PopSci. “This is like a dream come true.” 

All of the aircraft's six propellers can tilt, to allow it to take off or land vertically, but then fly like a regular airplane.
All of the aircraft’s six propellers can tilt, to allow it to take off or land vertically, but then fly like a regular airplane. Joby

There are a couple ways that the Air Force might use the aircraft. One is to patrol the Edwards Air Force Base’s sprawling footprint, which spans more than 400 square miles. (It’s an area bigger than New York City.)  Because the base is so big, says Maj. Philip Woodhull, who focuses on emerging technologies in the Air Force, the people who guard it “have quite a time doing perimeter security management.” 

“One of the ideas that we’re thinking of—an experiment we can do—is using a Joby aircraft for security forces purposes to do these perimeter sweeps,” he says. Their plan is to fly the aircraft remotely at first, meaning that a pilot would be operating it from the ground, without humans inside. 

The Joby craft could also monitor a giant lake bed at the base, which Woodhull says measures 12 by 20 miles in size. That area “is a great resource for doing emergency landings, but it is a natural landscape,” he says. The weather can alter the condition of the designated runways in the lake bed, and so, Woodhull says, “we always have to check whether the runways that we have designated out there are actually usable.” The Joby aircraft could help with that inspection process, as opposed to taking pickup trucks out to the site, although the initial plan is to fly the aircraft without anyone in it. If the Air Force becomes comfortable putting crew inside, though, the aircraft could also help transport people or supplies from one part of the base to another. The testing at the base will involve NASA, as well.

An aircraft that flies on electric power will be quieter than one that uses loud engines powered by fossil fuels, and that attribute could also have military appeal for other purposes. “There’s been significant interest across not only the other services,” such as the Army and Marine Corps, says Col. Thomas Meagher, who works with an Air Force program called AFWERX Agility Prime, but also “on the special forces side.”

“Low acoustic signature has lots of benefits for the DOD in some of those scenarios,” he adds. 

While delivery of the Joby air taxi to the Air Force represents a milestone, Bevirt notes that it remains “a Joby asset” even in DOD hands. And another Joby aircraft should be delivered to the base next year. Joby’s long-term plan is to eventually operate an air-taxi service for regular people to hail via an app like they would an Uber, and they’ve announced plans to partner with Delta.

Meagher says that this is the first electric aircraft “of this class”—specifically, it can carry several people, has tiltrotors, and a fixed wing—that the Air Force will use for an extended period. Meagher notes that they have previously experimented with a machine from a company called Lift by remotely flying it—that aircraft is a wild-looking contraption designed to carry one person. The Air Force also has experience with flying an electric aircraft from Vermont’s Beta Technologies. Beta has started to build an electric aircraft charging station at Duke Field near Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. 

At the ribbon cutting ceremony today, Col. Douglas Wickert, who commands the 412th Test Wing at Edwards Air Force Base, commented about the aircraft behind him: “Just looking at that, I mean you’re looking at the future—that is obvious.” 

Watch the event below.

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