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Col. Nathan Diller will soon retire at the end of the year from the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and his position as director of AFWERX, a USAF initiative tasked with overseeing the Agility Prime program. Although he sees challenges for the eVTOL industry, he remains confident in the transformative impact of the technology in both the commercial and military sectors.
Diller has served in the USAF since 2000 in a variety of roles, with more than 2,700 flight hours as a senior pilot in over 50 aircraft. Advanced air mobility (AAM) and eVTOL aircraft have been technology areas within his responsibility as director of AFWERX — and through Agility Prime in particular.
Agility Prime aims to ensure technical dominance in emerging markets, reshape acquisition processes, and field runway-independent air mobility solutions. It seeks to reduce risk in the eVTOL industry through funding experimentation and early flight testing, while providing eVTOL developers with access to Department of Defense (DOD) facilities and expertise.
The program has notched several milestones since its launch in 2019, including the first crewed flight of an electric aircraft in March 2022, and the first soldier flight — through a collaboration with the U.S. Army — in July 2022. Both milestones occurred on a Beta Technologies’ Alia aircraft.
Other accomplishments included the first USAF remotely-piloted flight of an eVTOL aircraft in December 2021, which came one month after Kitty Hawk completed its first beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight at the Springfield-Beckley Municipal Airport near the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
There were three major factors behind the launch of Agility Prime, Diller said. First, there was a clear USAF interest in eVTOL capability, particularly in areas such as disaster response or humanitarian operations. The platforms could support the military in its agile combat employment efforts, he noted, as well as in search and rescue (SAR) or even VIP transport.
“Some of these are very easily translatable into the market where these companies are working,” Diller said.
The second factor was the opportunity to examine and adapt the USAF’s own processes. Agility Prime has proven to be “a phenomenal sandbox for us to look at different approaches to the structure of our acquisition processes,” he said.
This has often involved working with startup companies and taking new approaches to contracting and establishing budgets, as well as adopting new approaches to testing and airworthiness. It has also included pairing small businesses with major defense contractors. Such lessons have helped inform the development of new programs, Diller said, such as Orbital Prime from SpaceWERX, the space-focused arm of AFWERX.
Finally, Diller pointed to the strategic context. The Air Force must look to the future of emerging technology opportunities, and must ensure it “has an opportunity to build out secure and safe processes and supply chains” for relevant industries.
The development of programs, such as Agility Prime, and the effort to stimulate and harness private sector advances stems from a recognition of funding reality, Diller said, with 80% of research and development (R&D) spending now occurring in the commercial sector.
If the USAF wishes to reap the benefits of such commercial innovation, “we have to take a bit more of a nuanced approach of not slowing down commercial development by imposing DOD requirements. There’s an opportunity, potentially with less funding, to accelerate that commercial market, which then becomes a source for lower cost R&D and perhaps lower cost procurement and even operations and maintenance.”
Weighing opportunities against potential challenges for the industry in the coming years, Diller pointed to the expected democratization of air travel, which presumes a massive increase in the use of air vehicles. However, questions linger about the costs of supporting this vision, notably in manufacturing.
“How quickly can manufacturing start to scale so that the vision of democratized air travel becomes a reality?” he said.
In the long term, he believes the value for the sector will lie in autonomous operations, and he thinks the necessary technological development, along with regulatory and public acceptance, “can happen sooner than we think if we take a proper approach to risk mitigation.”
This is a good example of the contribution the DOD can make to the sector, he noted, by providing its test ranges and airworthiness processes to accelerate data collection, which will in turn accelerate the understanding of risk and how it can be mitigated.
Diller is still determining his own next steps in his career. However, he hopes to retain some involvement in the eVTOL domain.
“It’s a fascinating time in the aerospace world … being able to maintain some connectivity to the industry in some form or fashion is certainly something that I intend to do,” he said.