By Gerrard Cowan

Gerrard Cowan is a freelance journalist who specializes in finance and defense. Follow him on Twitter @gerrardcowan

q-and-a

Will Roper on the future of eVTOL aircraft in military and commercial applications

Dr. Will Roper was assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force (USAF) for acquisition, technology and logistics between 2018 and 2021. He oversaw the launch of Agility Prime, a USAF project that aims to accelerate the U.S. eVTOL market through supporting companies with testing, certification and a range of other areas.

Since leaving the Air Force, Roper has become a distinguished professor of the practice at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech, along with assuming a range of consultancy roles in industry. He retains a strong interest in the eVTOL sector and sits on the board of directors at Beta Technologies. 

We spoke to Roper about Agility Prime and his views on the future of eVTOL aircraft in both the military and commercial domains. 

Beta Technologies Alia USAF
Beta Technologies is one of the eVTOL companies working closely with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) to identify military applications for its eVTOL and conduct flight testing. In March, the USAF achieved its first crewed flight using Beta’s Alia electric aircraft when Major Jonathan Appleby flew the aircraft alongside Beta test pilot Camron Guthrie. Beta Technologies Image

eVTOL.com: You launched Agility Prime while at the USAF. What military benefits do you see in the types of technologies being developed through the eVTOL sector?

Will Roper: I told our Air Force team many times that technology itself is now a battle, and we need to think of it that way. That’s important because more technology is increasingly being developed outside of any military funding. And unless we work hard to connect it with the military, there’s not a God-given right that we’ll have a future industrial base that’s heavily connected with war fighters. 

We’re also in danger of new technology fields being globalized to areas of the world that we don’t like if we do not engage as a government. So, for eVTOL, I wanted the Air Force involved because it would send a signal that it’s a market that we’re willing to be engaged in. It has provided certification opportunities that have arguably accelerated the market in the U.S., which is a great advantage if you want to have access to that technology in the future. 

Although eVTOLs aren’t ready to rock and roll in their fullest form today, it’s the first generation of electric airplanes, and they’re going to get better and better over time. And if we want to have access to them as the U.S. government, then that access begins by fighting on the technology battlefield as step one.

eVTOL.com: You’re on the board of Beta Technologies. What interests you about Beta’s systems?

Will Roper: I joined Beta’s board because they are so technically deep on all aspects of their system: the airplane, the structures, the software, and the propulsion. I see very technically deep teams that have a full understanding of the challenges that they’ve got to overcome. 

Will Roper
Will Roper was the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force who oversaw the launch of the Agility Prime program. He now sits on the board of directors at Beta Technologies. Photo provided by Will Roper

Really smart people with resources historically solve the problems that they’re given. Building a certifiable electric airplane that can take off like a helicopter and transition to fly like an airplane is a tough thing to do and get through certification. Certification is a slog, as I know very well from the U.S. Air Force. I think it’s going to be the very technically excellent teams that have the advantage, especially in a market where there’s regulatory uncertainty. Those with the best technology are the most insulated against regulatory uncertainty.

eVTOL.com: Where do you see the most potential for eVTOLs? 

Will Roper: I think there are some immediate applications. I think the early generations of airplanes will do very well for passenger transport and logistics, maybe for special operational forces missions because of their quiet nature. 

They’re the first generation of environmentally friendly aircraft, and they’re independent of fuel. As we’re watching in Ukraine, all the horrible events that are unfolding, the tyranny of fuel logistics is a real tyrant. To have a way of flying airplanes and maintaining them which is completely independent of moving JP-8 fuel around the world is highly appealing as an operational concept in the future. 

It’s going to take time for that to come into being, but battery technology gets better every year, and recharging technology is getting better every year. So having electric air power as a fallback seems like a good way to have reliability, adaptability and eliminate single points of failure. It won’t replace fueled airplanes, but that’s not the point. It’s having optionality.

eVTOL.com: The sector faces challenges around regulations and public acceptance, as well as areas like infrastructure. Are you confident these will all be overcome?

Will Roper: Yes, there’s nothing in the industry that I think cannot be overcome. There’s engineering to be done, but engineering has been done in aviation since its inception. 

When I reviewed the progress of the eVTOL industry when I was in the Air Force, I knew it was going to become a reality. I thought the Air Force could help accelerate it by engaging early, and hopefully have access to it long term by being an early adopter. There was nothing I saw that made me think there was anything insurmountable. 

From a regulatory perspective, there’s always uncertainty about when there will be comfort in new systems intended for everyday use around populations. But I believe early military adoption and public trust in the military certification process will help accelerate it. These systems have some immediate benefits for a variety of niche operations [in the military]. But as the underlying technology, batteries, etc., get better over time, I think the operational use will expand as well. The faster military flight hours ramp, the faster we’re likely to see civil certification.

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