Air Force Takes First Step Toward Adding Flying Cars to Its Aircraft Inventory

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Future unmanned aircraft systems may benefit from research development of rotor technology. (Photo Credit: DARPA Artist Concept)
Future unmanned aircraft systems may benefit from research development of rotor technology. (Photo Credit: DARPA Artist Concept)

The U.S. Air Force has made the first move to potentially bring non-traditional "flying car"-type aircraft into its inventory.

In a presolicitation notice posted Tuesday on the government's acquisition and awards website, beta.sam.gov, the service said it is seeking prototypes that include "emerging electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing technologies (eVTOL) and urban/advanced air mobility (UAM/AAM) aircraft," as well as other alternatives for its Agility Prime program.

Agility Prime, under the purview of the Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, aims to leverage commercial advancements in this field.

"As these systems mature toward certified commercial operations, the government will identify opportunities for early adoption, with the potential for procurement and fielding in the next three years," the solicitation reads.

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Officials at Air Force Materiel Command refer to the vehicles as "ORBs," or organic resupply buses.

ORBs are not necessarily "drones, cars, helicopters, trucks, airplanes, motorcycles, or SUVs, but might support similar missions," or encompass a mix of these roles, the notice states.

"Given their flexibility, an ORB could act as an organic resupply bus for disaster relief teams, an operational readiness bus for improved aircraft availability, and an open requirements bus for a growing diversity of missions," according to the notice.

The solicitation follows years of interest from the U.S. military, with the potential to someday replace the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft for transport and resupply to the battlefield.

For example, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) embarked on a similar effort, known as Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System (ARES) in 2014, according to Scientific American magazine.

The special operations community discussed a tailored concept in 2016. SOF units spoke with Uber executive Mark Moore, director of engineering for aviation at the ride-sharing company and a former NASA engineer, about "an ultra-low noise insertion" vehicle to get troops safely in and out of war zones, according to DefenseOne.

During the annual Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber conference in September 2019, Dr. Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Agility Prime gives the Air Force an opportunity to "look into where commercial innovation is going in flying cars."

"The task I gave the team was to prepare a series of challenges from things that would involve smaller vehicles, maybe moving a couple of special aviators around; to things involving smaller logistics sets -- ammo, meals, that kind of thing -- out of harm's way; up to moving heavy logistics, like weapons to reload on an aircraft; all the way to a bigger system," Roper said at the time, as reported by DefenseOne.

"Every flight hour we are flying in the Air Force is worth millions, if not billions, to those private companies that are wanting to take over this domestic urban mobility boom that's been predicted. It's a wonderful way to think about using the defense market as a partnership opportunity," he said.

Before the presolicitation announcement, Roper told reporters Feb. 21 that it also opens the door for the Air Force to be a leader in this space alongside big-tech companies.

Agility Prime officials are "looking at commercial markets, in this case the electric vertical and takeoff and landing, flying car market that view the Air Force as a potential influencer of that market," he said, as reported by Breaking Defense.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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