The U.S. Air Force recently awarded Sabrewing Aircraft the first contract under its new Agility Prime program to support development of eVTOL aircraft for potential military applications. The $3.25 million contract was confirmed on April 21 under Agility Prime’s AFWERX Small Business Innovative Research Phase II project and will involve testing of Sabrewing’s Rhaegal-A prototype unmanned cargo aircraft.
On May 1, Sabrewing “rolled out” the Rhaegal-A prototype as the finale to the Air Force’s week-long Agility Prime event. The California-based company has also built a Rhaegal-B model as part of its wider Rhaegal program to develop a family of autonomous cargo-carrying aircraft for civil and military applications. The Rhaegal-B is about twice the size of the -A model. Already in the works is a larger Wyvern model, which will be almost twice the size of the -B.
Sabrewing’s aircraft promise significantly greater payload and range than other eVTOL designs aimed at the air cargo sector. “Our cargo UAV can takeoff and land like a helicopter with a heavy payload, as well as fly farther, faster, and higher at a fraction of the cost of any other aircraft in its class,” commented company CEO Ed De Reyes.
The Rhaegal-B is designated as the program’s production aircraft, and it can carry standard industry Unit Load Devices used by existing air freight carriers. It can carry two LD-1 containers or four smaller LD-2 containers or two LD-3 containers.
The aircraft is expected to deliver payload capacity of 5,400 pounds. Operating in eVTOL mode, it can fly in and out of locations without a runway on flights of up to 1,150 miles. If it operates as a conventional fixed-wing aircraft into an airport, the maximum payload it can carry increases to 10,000 pounds. The aircraft can fly at altitudes of up to 22,000 feet and at speeds of up to 230 mph.
The Agility Prime evaluation of the Rhaegal will test its detect-and- avoid capability, which is a key feature of autonomous operations, as well as confirm whether it can operate in an environment where GPS signals are jammed or unavailable. The trials will simulate operations with typical cargo payloads and also casualty evacuation missions. According to Sabrewing CEO Ed De Reyes, the company hopes that the U.S. military will opt to buy a version of the Rhaegal-B to be operated under the name, the Aleut.
Sabrewing is aiming to achieve Part 23 type certification with Europe's EASA by July 2021 and with the U.S. FAA by December 2021. The company expects to have fully built the first production example of the Rhaegal by January 2021.
De Reyes described the Rhaegal as a semi-autonomous aircraft that can have its flight path adjusted by a remote ground station. However, due to its weight class and current certification requirements, it will be operated with a pilot on board.
Speaking at the Agility Prime event, Dr. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, said that the purpose of the program is “to accelerate this [eVTOL] market for domestic use in a way that also helps our military.” The Air Force has yet to make clear how much total funding will be available to private-sector companies or the terms under which it will be offered.
However, it has indicated that the Pentagon’s “Trusted Capital” policy will be applied to block participation by companies deemed to be backed by so-called “adversarial capital” from countries seeking to gain an economic and/or national-security advantage over the U.S. China is widely considered the primary cause for concern in this regard, so the policy raises questions as to whether companies with Chinese backers will be able to participate in Agility Prime work.