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By Elan Head

An award-winning journalist, Elan is also a commercial helicopter pilot and an FAA Gold Seal flight instructor with helicopter and instrument ratings. Follow her on Twitter @elanhead

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Thousands tune in for Air Force’s Agility Prime launch

The U.S. Air Force can’t tell you exactly what ORB stands for. According to the Innovative Capabilities Opening published by the service on Feb. 25, ORB could in certain contexts mean “organic resupply bus.” Or “operational readiness bus,” or “open requirements bus,” or all three.

Lift Hexa eVTOL for Agility Prime
Texas-based LIFT Aircraft, creator of the Hexa personal eVTOL shown here, is one of the companies taking part in the Air Force’s Agility Prime virtual launch event this week. YouTube Screenshot

But if the acronym is hopelessly muddled, the Air Force can at least tell you what an ORB is — and is not. Specifically, an ORB is a vertical take-off and landing aircraft that features an electric power source and distributed electric propulsion (an eVTOL, in other words). It definitely hovers on rotors — although it might also have wings — and can be crewed, remotely piloted, or autonomous. It’s also commercial-off-the-shelf, not commissioned solely for military applications.

As for other things an ORB is not, it’s not an airplane, because those need runways. It’s not a drone, because those don’t carry people, even though some ORBs might carry only cargo. And it’s not a helicopter, because those, according to the Air Force, “have big, loud, and expensive blades.”

Finally, it’s not a flying car — which also uses runways or roadways — even though the Air Force has embraced that term in outreach to the general public. And can you blame them? It’s easier than trying to define ORB.

On Monday, the Air Force kicked off its week-long virtual launch event for Agility Prime: its initiative to accelerate development of the commercial eVTOL industry. Forced to pivot online after its in-person launch event was canceled due to COVID-19, the Air Force has done so with flair, producing a slick, interactive virtual conference that reportedly attracted over 6,000 participants on its first day.

“Of course COVID-19 was a punch in the mouth… that we have responded to brilliantly,” said Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, in opening remarks on April 27. “Keeping this program on track sends a strong message that innovation is not stopping because of the current crisis. We have to do things differently, and this virtual kickoff is an example that innovation doesn’t wait on anyone.”

Joining Roper for opening remarks were several high-profile speakers, including U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett, Chief of Staff of the Air Force General David Goldfein, and Air Mobility Commander General Maryanne Miller — all of whom underscored the commitment of the Air Force to helping the emerging eVTOL industry achieve transformational mobility.

“Agility Prime is a program with a vision of world impact,” Barrett emphasized. “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.”

The Air Force has several reasons to be interested in eVTOL aircraft. For one, it’s anxious to avoid ceding dominance to foreign markets, as happened with the commercial drone industry.

“What happened? Well, the supply chain quickly went overseas just due to globalization, and now those foreign systems like DJI Phantoms represent a security risk to us,” Roper explained. “Because we were not proactive, the market shifted in a way that was not beneficial to national security, and not beneficial to our industry base and economy.”

Sabrewing Rhaegal-A for Agility Prime
Sabrewing plans to roll out its Rhaegal-A aircraft (left) on the final day of the Agility Prime launch event. Sabrewing Image

Beyond national security considerations, however, “we also want to win wars,” pointed out Brigadier General S. Clinton Hinote with Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability. The Air Force foresees a number of ways in which ORBs could assist with that goal, with logistics and sustainment being a prime application, he continued. “How do we get the logistics that we need, how do we deliver those small packages and small groups of people to the right spots in that combat zone? Certainly we see use cases for VTOL in that.”

Through Agility Prime, the Air Force aims to provide both financial and in-kind support to selected eVTOL developers, with the aim of fielding its first ORBs by 2023. Roper emphasized, however, that the Air Force is committed to not imposing “defense unique” requirements on its ORBs, as that could compromise the affordability and speed to market that are among the chief selling points of commercial-off-the-shelf products.

“We want to . . . purchase these just like private citizens do, as a vehicle that’s used for a service or a mission that the Air Force does, and not as the driver of its R&D [research and development],” he said.

The good news, he added, is that the Air Force values many of the things that innovators and private investors are prioritizing, such as low noise and operating costs.

“We see ourselves tracking in parallel with the way that domestic use is going,” Roper said. “So what we’re simply doing is coming in and saying we can be a bridge to that market.”

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