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AFWERX director envisions a transportation revolution

Then-Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett learns about the details of the Hexa, an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, from Matt Chasen, LIFT Aircraft chief executive officer, at Camp Mabry in Texas in August 2020.

SEAN KORNEGAY/U.S. AIR NATIONAL GUARD

By THOMAS GNAU | Springfield News-Sun | Published: January 21, 2021

(Tribune News Service) — The director of AFWERX sees a future where "anywhere can be an airport and anyone can be a pilot" — and Springfield will help build that future, he said in a new interview with the Dayton Daily News and Springfield News-Sun.

The Air Force's Agility Prime effort to stoke the development of electric-powered flying cars capable of landing and taking off vertically will bring such craft "to the skies near you very soon," Col. Nathan Diller said Wednesday.

AFWERX is a subsidiary of the Air Force exploring the blewding edge of certain technologies. The $35 million Agility Prime program seeks to create and speed a market for advanced air mobility aircraft while creating a supply chain to support production. The goal is to obtain about 30 of the vehicles built by 2023.

That number could grow significantly, Diller said.

"We are designed at AFWERX to be aggressive. So far I think we're on a good path to achieve that number of aircraft," he said.

The program has one aircraft through airworthiness tests and he expects to get three more through in due time. More than 20 companies have applied to be part of the effort, and the Air Force has contracts with nearly a dozen of them, the colonel said.

"We feel like we're able to, at relatively low cost, explore the trade space and capabilities that are out there and will allow us to make some smart decisions soon on which of those companies are postured to be some of these first mission partners," Diller said.

Ground was broken last month for an electric charging station at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport for Vermont-based BETA Technologies. The charge station can be adapted to accommodate electric ground vehicles, as well, Diller said.

That event was really just the start of development work planned for Springfield, however.

Still ahead is the building of a simulator for "advanced air mobility vehicles," also known as "air taxis."

Diller said that simulator might be compared to a "partial dome" with a full mock-up of a flying car cockpit within, one that will provide a "pretty immersive experience," he said.

The goal of the simulator is to offer the user "a really high quality simulation with production representatives, flight controls and a cockpit."

There are three initiatives anchored in Springfield, in all: The charging station that will "allow some of these companies we hope to be flying in Springfield soon," Diller said.

There will be the simulator, which will be used by BETA and Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Joby Aviation, in the spring.

And the last initiative: Actually flying at Springfield-Beckley Airport.

These vehicles "are really taking some of the most advanced electric propulsion technology and combining it with materials and taking leaps with autonomy and aircraft automation," Diller said.

"You have this vision in the not-so-distant future: Everywhere could be an airport and anyone can be a pilot," he added.

Happening this week is a digital engineering workshop for partners who have established a contractual relationship with Agility Prime, companies who are manufacturers looking to be part of the effort.

Diller expects this effort to stay in place with the new Biden administration.

"We have studies going across five of our major commands," Diller said. "We have collaboration happening with the Marine Corps, studies happening with the Coast Guard, we have a broad set of users who are looking at the potential options and are realizing there is cost savings for the taxpayer and increased capability for the warfighter that makes this a compelling case."

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