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Flying cars have a new name: Organic Resupply Busses, or ORBs, as the Air Force puts it. Late last year, the U.S. military branch announced a program called “Agility Prime” seeking to turn commercial advances with flying cars into military applications. Set up like a DARPA Challenge, the Air Force released a preliminary solicitation this week for the kinds of vehicles companies can submit for the first stage of Agility Prime — these being electric or hybrid-powered eVTOL aircraft with autonomous, remote, or onboard-pilot controls.

Ultimately, the solicitation says the force wants an ORB that can ferry up to eight troops at more than 100 miles per hour for more than an hour, offering wide mission potential within those technical specs. Dr. Will Roper, the Air Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition, suggested tasks from pilot rescue to logistics security at nuclear bases, disaster relief, border surveillance and security, even armament resupply for fighter jets landing at commercial or remote airports in theater.

The first step is for interested companies to submit data about their craft. Those companies chosen by the Air Force will be asked to draw up a prototype test report, which expands on data measurements for utility, performance, cost-effectiveness, and a path to air certification. The firms that make it past this stage could sign small procurement contracts for units the Force wants to buy in its 2023 fiscal year. All the interested firms also need to have their flying cars actually flying by the end of this year. 

This is a new approach to contracting, borne of old lessons and new realities. Roper said that instead of the Department of Defense trying to fund a specific military technology, he wants to lure the much larger capital amounts thrown at commercial investment into creating dual-purpose technology. The bait for commercial firms is getting commercial airworthiness certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) by having proved their aircraft over all the flight hours required for rigorous military testing. The new approach is also driven by China’s military buildup, U.S. officials aware that China’s centralized economy gets more out of its military investment dollars than the U.S. does, even though the U.S. military spends more on R&D. The Pentagon’s taking a larger look at corporate ecosystems as well; having ignored the small drone market, China took over the drone market and the supply chain.

“If we had realized that commercial trend and had shown that the Pentagon is willing to pay a higher price for a trusted supply chain drone,” Roper said, “we probably could have kept part of the market here and not have to go through the security issues we do now when someone wants to use a foreign-made drone at some kind of Air Force or service event.”

Finally, last fall, when Roper first mentioned Agility Prime, he suggested a future craft as replacement for the Bell V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor VTOL aircraft, “especially in logistics.”

Agility Prime is another step in a long march toward flying vehicles for the military, the journey having started in the 1950s. Hiller Aviation created both the one-man VZ-1 Pawnee Flying Platform (pictured) and the four-seater flying Jeep, a precursor to its planned flying sedan for the commercial public. Piasecki built its VZ-8 Airgeep, De Lackner had its deadly looking DH-5 Aerocycle, AVRO made the flying saucer VZ-9 Avrocar, Curtiss-Wright got closest to a manned version of a modern drone with the VZ-7, Chrysler made the way-too-big-and-heavy quasi-hovercfraft known as the VZ-7, and a NASA paper on the subject from 2001 covered even more of the early efforts. More recently, the U.S. Army renewed its quest for a flying craft in 2015, and Uber spoke to the U.S. Special Forces command about “an ultra-low noise insertion signature and increased surveillance capabilities” in 2016.

The Air Force requested $10 million for Agility Prime in 2019 and another $25 million in 2020. Assuming Congress provides the funds, the service has plans to seek more money in its 2022 financial year.

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