The FAA and the U.S. Air Force are stepping up efforts to integrate advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft into U.S. airspace.
This week, the regulator and the military’s aviation arm agreed to exchange flight test data and combine their capabilities for testing AAM aircraft designs, such as electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) or autonomous aircraft. The new collaboration is meant to mature—and safely integrate—the emerging technologies with airports, individual pilots, policies, communications, and other aircraft within the nation’s complex national airspace system (NAS).
“A new era of aviation is taking off, and safe and efficient operations require collaboration,” said John Maffei, the FAA’s technology development director. “This data will help inform FAA certification efforts, policies, standards, and future airspace integration requirements.”
On Wednesday, Maffei on behalf of the FAA signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Colonel Elliott Leigh, chief commercial officer for the Air Force and the director of AFWERX, a technology directorate within the Air Force Research Laboratory that serves as the department’s innovation arm. AFWERX’s goal is to accelerate new aircraft capabilities by connecting private sector companies with department resources, including airmen.
“We intend to utilize all the various aircraft and traffic management systems we have access to in order to help the FAA gain the data they need to accelerate regulatory changes to enable emerging technology integration,” Darshan “Dash” Divakaran, AFWERX head of airspace innovation and Prime partnerships, told FLYING.
The signing of the MOU took place during an event at Duke Field (KEGI), a military airport at Florida’s Eglin Air Force Base. The airfield houses the 919th Special Operations Wing, an Air Force Reserve unit.
Two manufacturers working with AFWERX, Joby Aviation, and Beta Technologies have already delivered an eVTOL aircraft and an electric aircraft charger, respectively, to Eglin. Beta this week also flew its Alia eCTOL (electric conventional takeoff and landing) on a 1,500 nm journey across 12 states, landing at Duke Field on Thursday. The companies will train Air Force pilots to fly their respective aircraft, which will soon be used to conduct testing and experimentation.
“Even prior to the signing of the MOU, AFWERX Prime and the FAA began exploring ways to integrate efforts and share data,” said Divakaran. “One example is the Prime Logistics team meeting with the Emerging Technology office within the FAA’s Office of Airports to share information and lessons learned through the installation of the first eVTOL charging station on a DOD installation at Duke Field.”
AFWERX and the FAA emphasized that the MOU supports the development of U.S.-built aircraft in particular, as well as the infrastructure and regulations that will enable safe integration.
“We are driving progress in propulsion technology, in manufacturing and materials, and in test and safety for a novel class of air vehicles,” said Leigh. “Keeping this effort rooted in the United States, building our national security and accelerating innovation for our airmen and guardians are all crucial for the Air Force… I am excited about this industry’s direction and the Air Force’s role in shaping it.”
Just in the past three years, AFWERX has awarded more than $345 million in contracts to 36 electric aircraft and technology developers, which supports the country’s developing national AAM strategy, said Leigh. By his estimate, Air Force investments, certifications, partnerships, and testing have helped the program funnel over $11 billion in commercial investment into the AAM sector.
Specifically, the MOU was signed between the FAA and AFWERX Prime, a subdivision seeking to “prime” emerging commercial markets. Prime offers a sort of quid pro quo: The Air Force provides resources for contracted private companies to field their aircraft more quickly, while the military gets to explore use cases for designs not yet on the commercial market.
Joby, for example, had its eVTOL air taxi in the skies above Eglin within a week of delivery—and well ahead of its expected commercial launch in 2025. The Air Force, meanwhile, received a shiny, new aircraft to test unexplored military applications. Everybody wins.
Joby and Beta are far from the only eVTOL manufacturers under contract with AFWERX. Competitor Archer Aviation, for instance, signed a deal worth up to $142 million for the delivery of six Midnight air taxis in July. Another firm, Jump Aero, recently extended its contract, while Pipistrel this week sealed the first AFWERX agreement for its Velis Electro.
Now, the FAA will have access to the data and learnings these firms uncover while flying with the Air Force.
“This MOU is a big step for the future of AAM and provides industry and investors the confidence needed to accelerate forward,” said Divakaran in a press release. “This partnership validates why the DOD created the AFWERX Agility Prime program to focus on AAM and dual-use technology.”
This week’s agreement comes a few months after the FAA released Innovate28, its plan to enable safe, near-term AAM operations using existing infrastructure, regulations, and systems. The agency hopes it will culminate in scaled operations in time for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, where several eVTOL air taxi firms are expected to ferry spectators and athletes around the city.
FAA officials believe the MOU supports Innovate28’s initial entry into service targets. Future phases, as described by the agency’s Urban Air Mobility Concept of Operations (UAM ConOps), released in May, could also be impacted. The UAM ConOps is essentially a blueprint that provides guidance on AAM operations down the line as the industry matures.
“We intend to continue to explore areas for integrated testing by collaborating with the FAA’s Innovate28 team, which is consolidating research and data requirements from across the FAA’s lines of business,” Divakaran told FLYING.
Collaborating with the Air Force could help the FAA make up some ground on U.S. leadership in the eVTOL space.
To the surprise of many in the industry, the agency last year reversed course on eVTOL classification. Rather than obtaining type certification in the normal class under Part 23 light aircraft regulations—which was the expectation for years—manufacturers were informed they would need to switch to the special class process under FAR 21.17(b), certifying in the newly added “powered lift” category. The change forced the FAA to reissue certification bases to a handful of firms, including Joby and Archer.
Since then, the FAA published a final rule that defined powered-lift operations in regulations covering other commercial operations, such as airlines or charters. It also proposed a rule for training and certifying powered-lift pilots, though the proposal was widely panned by several major industry groups.