Since “The Jetsons” premiered in 1962, Americans have been fascinated by the prospect of flying cars. In the show’s memorable opening, George Jetson somehow folded his sleek space sedan into a briefcase, a bit of design wizardry science will find challenging to recreate.
Cartoon physics aside, we’re much closer to developing flying cars than you might realize.
Flying vehicles portend the elevation of terrestrial military missions—and entire commercial industries—into the third dimension. With over 200 companies leveraging advances from hybrid and electric cars to create affordable “electric vertical takeoff and landing” (eVTOL) systems, a radical transportation future is not too far fetched, nor too far away. Especially if the Air Force helps precipitate it.
Will Roper is the Air Force’s acquisition executive.
Previous transformations in aviation generated spectacular leaps in performance, but hand in hand with increased costs that limited quantity. Flying cars are quite the opposite. Given their mechanical simplicity and high degree of automation, costs for purchasing and maintenance could be an order of magnitude lower. This would make the quantities of these systems needed for base security, rescue, disaster relief, and other missions affordable. Moving these missions into the third dimension would provide greater responsiveness for American troops and a faster first use-case for the companies building them.
The biggest impediment is not technical know-how. It is creating a fundamental change in how the military interacts with emerging commercial markets.
Over 80 percent of our nation’s R&D funding now goes to the private sector. Most new opportunities lie in commercial markets that charge ahead without military partnerships. This continued absence will have far-reaching consequences that could imperil the national security advantage our nation has enjoyed for decades.
Consider small drones. The Pentagon’s absence as this market emerged allowed China to dominate the global supply chain. Now we react to the security challenges this creates. In hindsight, proactive engagement by the military—interjecting the steady demand of our market for trusted systems, even at higher prices—might have supported a small US industry base against collapse.
Hobbyist drones are one thing, but other dual-use technologies—ones with greater potential impact on the global economy, especially intelligent automation—are in development as we speak. There’s no guarantee they will commercialize in the US first. But to tip the scales, it is imperative our military view proactive acceleration of these technologies as essential.
In the case of eVTOL, the Air Force is doing just that. Our new program, Agility Prime, leverages unique Air Force assets—test ranges, safety certifications, and military missions capable of logging steady flight hours—to build confidence in the technology, attract investors, and hopefully expedite domestic commercialization. It also provides the Air Force revolutionary agility for numerous missions.
Agility Prime will partner with industry on a series of live-fly challenges starting with a virtual launch event from April 27 to May 1, bringing together companies, investors, and airmen from across the nation. These “Air Races” will identify vehicles ready to perform military missions now and fast-track them to initial operations within three years. Because our aim is accelerating and procuring commercial systems capable of military use, difficult defense-unique mods will be strictly out of bounds—an important step in using our military market to catalyze a commercial one.
Flying cars aren’t the only commercial technology the military can help accelerate. Next-generation AI, quantum systems, and zero-trust software technology are just a few areas where we are actively pursuing future Agility Prime-like initiatives.
As we explore new military concepts for logistics and rescue, we will not lose sight of our broader goal of creating a new industry and sparking a revolution in aviation—fostering our nation’s enduring innovation engine is essential to overcome challenges, today and tomorrow. In a sense, we are returning to our roots by doing so. Air Force hallways in the Pentagon are lined with pictures of groundbreaking aircraft: from the Wright Brothers’ cloth and wood designs, to the sleek jets that thundered past the sound barrier, to the stealthy weapons systems that dominate the skies today.
With Covid-19 forcing everyone to think differently, now is the perfect time for a new innovation partnership model and, just maybe, a new picture for the Pentagon.