U.S. Marine Corps partners with Air Force to explore eVTOL potential

The U.S. Marine Corps is partnering with the Air Force on its Agility Prime initiative to encourage development of the commercial electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) industry.

Marine Corps interest in Joby eVTOL
A flight demonstration by Joby Aviation convinced Marine Corps deputy Carmine Borrelli that eVTOL aircraft could have valuable military applications. The Marines will now be working with the U.S. Air Force’s Agility Prime initiative to test that hypothesis. Joby Aviation Photo
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According to Carmine Borrelli, deputy of the Logistics Innovation Office supporting the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the Marines expect to contribute both funding and potential use cases to the Agility Prime effort.

“We’re already working with Agility Prime on various analyses we’ve done for the last couple of years,” Borrelli told reporters in a March 10 conference call organized by the Vertical Flight Society, explaining that the Marines intend to support the initiative “in any way that we can, including [through] use cases that we’ve developed.”

Agility Prime seeks to catalyze growth in the U.S. eVTOL market by supporting aircraft developers in their testing and certification efforts. The Air Force also expects to provide near-term government use cases for eVTOL aircraft that could provide revenue and data to help accelerate civil certification.

Rather than dictating the development of the technology, the Air Force aims to leverage commercial innovation to procure highly autonomous aircraft that are inexpensive to maintain and operate for a variety of logistics applications. According to Borrelli, the Marine Corps is likewise looking to “ride the coattails” of the commercial eVTOL industry.

“We want to seriously consider and match the industry’s approach,” he said. “If the market is moving towards the 1,000-pound cargo platform that’s a flying car, and many [of them] are going to be out there and the cost is going to go down considerably, then it would be in our best interests to figure out how . . . we can use that platform to do what we need to do.”

The partnership with the Air Force dovetails with the Marines’ broader efforts to develop “unmanned logistics systems – air” (ULS-A) in small, medium, and large sizes, including models with conventional, electric, and hybrid-electric propulsion systems. The expanded use of drones for cargo transportation promises to reduce risks associated with moving cargo by ground, as well as free up conventional aircraft for other missions.

Marine Corps ULS-A
A U.S. Marine Corps graphic shows how small, medium, and large ULS-A could provide distribution capabilities within the expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) environment in conjunction with conventional aircraft.

The Marines envision using small ULS-A — with payloads of around 60 to 150 pounds (roughly 25 to 70 kilograms) — to provide emergent and routine distribution of supplies between neighboring ground units.

Meanwhile, medium ULS-A would have payloads of around 300 to 500 lb. (135 to 225 kg). These aircraft would be used for platoon resupply, and could potentially accomplish limited casualty evacuations or emergency extractions of one to two people.

The category of large ULS-A includes aircraft with payloads of 1,000 to 3,000 lb. (450 to 1,360 kg) or more. This category encompasses the unmanned Kaman K-Max helicopters that flew cargo missions for the Marines in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2013, and which are currently being upgraded with more advanced autonomy packages.

While the K-Max can carry loads up to 6,000 lb. (2,720 kg), that doesn’t mean there’s not also room for the “flying car” with a 1,000-lb. payload capacity, Borrelli emphasized.

“We’re not making hard-line requirements here. We’re ranging the requirements to try to be able to see if we could make use of the technology as it’s being developed,” he said.

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Borrelli said his office’s interest in eVTOL aircraft dates back to at least 2017, when the Defense Innovation Unit entered into agreements with Joby Aviation and Kitty Hawk to explore the general military utility of eVTOL technology. In particular, a flight demonstration by Joby highlighted the potential of a simple-to-operate platform “that could be cost-effective, that could go far distances, and that could carry stuff,” as he put it.

Two years ago, Borrelli said, his office found this novel technology to be a hard sell to the broader military community. But since then, the growing momentum in the space has opened the door to initiatives including Agility Prime, which hypothesizes real potential for eVTOLs in military applications.

“There’s an awful lot of excitement, obviously, with Uber and [urban] air mobility,” he told reporters. “That excitement could take us much farther, not only in cargo, but we potentially would look towards even platforms to move people — again from the logistics perspective.”

Borrelli suggested that the larger industry that is growing up around commercial eVTOL technology could also help solve some of the challenges associated with electric aircraft, notably charging.

“It’s not going to do us good to have a considerable amount of inventory unless we can be able to charge efficiently,” he acknowledged. “So we’re watching that space very closely and we’re excited to see [an] industry being created around this. Because certainly if we’re going to be doing this [for] local commuter markets in just a few years, we should be able to benefit greatly from those advancements [in] those places where we may need a charging station.”

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