The Air Force said on Monday that it had received its first electric passenger aircraft capable of taking off and landing vertically, a milestone for the companies that hope to one day sell thousands of such vehicles to serve as air taxis.
Joby Aviation, an air taxi start-up, delivered the aircraft to Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California, where the first supersonic flight took place. Air taxis are typically powered by batteries and designed to lift off and land like helicopters, but include wings to fly like airplanes.
Joby, which is based in Santa Cruz, Calif., said that its electric aircraft is substantially quieter than helicopters or planes. Each can carry one pilot and four passengers and travel as fast as 200 miles per hour and as far as 100 miles, according to the company.
The delivery is the first under an Air Force contract that Joby said was valued at up to $131 million and gives the government the option to receive up to nine aircraft. The Air Force and Joby will operate the vehicle, but Joby will still own the aircraft and receive both fixed and variable payments for hours flown. NASA, which has a facility at the base, will also conduct research on the vehicle.
The Air Force has signed similar contracts with other air taxi companies under a program called Agility Prime, part of a broader effort to promote innovation. Agility Prime’s mission is to support development of air taxis and similar technology, giving the Air Force a head start in exploring how it might use such aircraft while also providing financial and testing support to the air taxi companies.
“It is incredibly valuable for us to be getting to do early operations and to build the operational muscle,” Joby’s chief executive, JoeBen Bevirt, said. The collaboration will help Joby in several ways, including in learning how best to train pilots and maintain and charge aircraft in real-world situations.
Joby and other air taxi companies, including Archer Aviation and Beta Technologies, are separately rushing to get the Federal Aviation Administration to certify their aircraft for commercial flight. All three companies hope to begin commercial service as soon as 2025. The F.A.A. has said it is preparing to support robust air taxi operations by 2028.
But because the agency does not govern aircraft used by the military, air taxi companies have eagerly pursued defense contracts while they work toward F.A.A. approval.
At Edwards Air Force Base, Joby’s aircraft will be tested as a means to transport cargo and people. The vehicles could also be used to monitor the expansive base or tested to conduct medical evacuations, for example. All told, the Air Force has more than 100 performance measures it wants to evaluate, said Beau Griffith, the deputy lead of Agility Prime.
“Bearing out the promise of these vehicles is the program’s goal,” he said.
NASA will work closely with the military and Joby in testing the aircraft, with the aim of using its research to guide air taxi development and support the F.A.A. Starting next year, NASA pilots and researchers will explore how Joby’s vehicle would operate in a typical city environment, examining flight procedures and how it could interact with air traffic control and local infrastructure. Joby’s aircraft is expected to remain at the base for at least a year, and the company has plans to deliver another in 2024.
Other leading air taxi companies have similar partnerships. Archer, in Santa Clara, Calif., announced this summer that it had signed Air Force contracts valued at up to $142 million, which included delivery of up to six aircraft similar to Joby’s. Beta, in Burlington, Vt., is the first electric air taxi manufacturer to receive an airworthiness certificate for manned flight from the military, with pilots from both the Air Force and the Army having flown its aircraft. That company is also installing the first electric aircraft charging station at a military installation.
In addition to support from the military, the air taxi industry has received substantial support from other aviation and automotive companies.
Joby’s investors include Delta Air Lines and Toyota, which is Joby’s largest external shareholder and is helping the air taxi manufacturer as it builds a factory in Ohio. Archer recently received investments from Boeing, United Airlines and Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep and Ram, which is helping Archer to establish a factory in Georgia. And Beta is collaborating with UPS to test deliveries in the United Arab Emirates and has raised funds from Fidelity and other investors.
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