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AFWERX Agility Prime completes first USAF-piloted flight of an eVTOL vehicle
Thursday, 20 January 2022

The AFWERX Agility Prime program took another step forward in December with the first government remotely piloted flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

Capt. Terrence McKenna, an Air Force Reserve pilot with the 370th Flight Test Squadron and the Test and Experimentation Lead for AFWERX Agility Prime, participated in remote pilot in control (rPIC) training on the Heaviside aircraft at the Kitty Hawk Corporation's facility in Palo Alto, California from Dec. 13-17, 2021.

The training culminated in the first government remote piloted flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft when he successfully flew the Heaviside via the Buddy Box System. This first Airman flight demonstrated another key milestone in the collaboration.

Kitty Hawk, in partnership with Agility Prime, is evaluating a training syllabus for their unmanned eVTOL aircraft, the Heaviside. McKenna's over 15 years of expertise piloting manned aircraft such as the C-5 and the T-38, as well as designing, developing, and testing manned and small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) as a civilian engineer, assisted Kitty Hawk's team of engineers in refining both their product and their training procedures.

Kitty Hawk: Building on the Wright Brothers' Legacy

Kitty Hawk Corporation was founded in 2010 by Sebastian Thrun and is backed by Google co-founder Larry Page. Their series of Heaviside aircraft are just several in a line of over 20 various eVTOL prototypes. Kitty Hawk is headquartered in Palo Alto, California and conducts much of its testing there. In July 2021, the USAF granted Kitty Hawk airworthiness approval, enabling the company to take advantage of additional testing opportunities through a partnership with Agility Prime.

Josh Lane, a Flight Test Engineer (FTE) for Agility Prime, began working with Kitty Hawk in March 2021 and has collaborated with Kitty Hawk to develop test plans supporting their prototype testing and goals to commercialisation.

Focusing on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revised Part 23, the safety standards and type certification requirements for small aircraft, and other potentially relevant parts of the Code of Federal Regulations, eVTOL companies like Kitty Hawk gained a greater understanding of the requirements they would have to comply with in order to gain type certification. However, Lane explained that the road to certification for eVTOLs is an ongoing, collaborative process.

"These are new designs that don't fit the FAA mould, and there's not a 100 percent fit in some of these companies' cases, so there's a lot of engagement going on getting this path to a certified FAA aircraft," Lane said. "They're using baseline parts and working with the FAA to determine what that certification basis is and what areas to be adjusted and addressed."

McKenna concurred, saying, "Agility Prime is figuring out how we approach training for these types of aircraft. This is a whole new ballpark."

The Heaviside Aircraft

Named for the English engineer, physicist, and mathematician Oliver Heaviside, the Heaviside is Kitty Hawk's current flying model. The company has worked through several iterations of this vehicle and are in the planning stages for the next.

The Heaviside was first deployed in 2019 after nearly a decade of development. This aircraft's maximum takeoff weight is approximately 880 pounds, allowing for a passenger up to about 176 pounds. Heaviside can travel at speeds of roughly 180 miles per hour, but most significantly, it remains quiet: only about 35 decibels at 1,500 feet above ground level, which is slightly louder than a whisper and about 100 times quieter than a helicopter. Additionally, Heaviside has demonstrated 237 transitions between hover and forward flight, as well as a range of 100 miles on a single charge.

Heaviside takes advantage of several advanced technologies, such as Distributed Electric Propulsion (DEP), as this aircraft has eight fully electric propellers. Additionally, Lane explains that Kitty Hawk has refined its use of automated flight capabilities through its Ground Control Station (GCS); engineers can upload a flight plan, telling the vehicle to fly to certain locations, and the Heaviside can perform the entire flight profile without human intervention.

However, a training feature of the Heaviside is the Buddy Box setup, which is a secondary remote controller wired to a primary controller. This system is intended for the use of an instructor and a student performing the duties of an external pilot in manual flight mode; the trainee handles and operates the aircraft while the instructor provides supervision and support.

The Buddy Box system works much like a driver's education car: the driving instructor is in the passenger seat and allows the student to manually operate the vehicle, but is ultimately in full control and able to brake if necessary. Likewise, for a Buddy Box setup, the instructor can override any direction that the remote pilot in command (rPIC) gives the aircraft from the primary controller.

The Heaviside and future models will not rely on an external pilot for flight operations, but utilising this training method now affords the opportunity for more immediate and qualitative feedback on the aircraft, while also building out a training syllabus for the GCS operator.

Contact details from our directory:
AFRL (Airforce Research Laboratory) Research/Consulting Services, Wind Tunnels
Kitty Hawk Corporation Airframer
Related aircraft programs:
Kitty Hawk Heaviside H2
Related directory sectors:
Test Equipment