The US Air Force has announced that its AFWERX Agility Prime program took another step forward in December 2021 with the first government remotely piloted flight of an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft.
Captain Terrence McKenna, an Air Force Reserve pilot with the 370th Flight Test Squadron and the Test and Experimentation Lead for the AFWERX Agility Prime program, participated in remote pilot in control (rPIC) training on the Heaviside aircraft at the Kitty Hawk Corporation’s facility in Palo Alto, California.
The flight came after a four-day training program based on remotely controlling the aircraft using its unique Buddy Box System. The Buddy Box system works much like a driver’s education car, where the student controls the vehicle, but the instructor retains primary control and can override any vehicle commands by the student.
The Heaviside and future models will not rely on an external pilot for flight operations, but utilizing this training method now affords the opportunity for more immediate and qualitative feedback on the aircraft.
Named for the English engineer, physicist, and mathematician Oliver Heaviside, the Heaviside is Kitty Hawk’s current flying model. The eVTOL is a two-seater electric plane with a reverse-sweep wing with six tilting electric motor props and a small canard with two.
This aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight is approximately 880 pounds (400 kg), allowing for a passenger up to about 176 pounds (80 kg). Heaviside can travel at speeds of roughly 180 mph (290 km/h), 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 (160 km) on a single charge.
Additionally, Josh Lane, a Flight Test Engineer (FTE) for Agility Prime, explains that Kitty Hawk has refined its use of automated flight capabilities through its Ground Control Station (GCS), which allows the Heaviside to be programmed with a complete flight plan. This tells the vehicle to fly to certain locations, and the Heaviside can perform the entire flight without human intervention.
“It’s a different paradigm for operating the aircraft,” McKenna said. “A crucial thing that the RC controller allows you to do that a completely unmanned or a completely ground-controlled station based approach does not is [gain] that intuition about the flight characteristics of the aircraft that are so important [for operational employment].”
Once fully developed, the Heaviside and similar eVTOL aircraft could be used for military and commercial applications. The aircraft could transport injured personnel, evacuate people from hostile territories, deliver cargo or first aid, make emergency medical services more accessible in rural areas or congested cities, and assist with firefighting or search and rescue operations, among many other potential scenarios.