Joby Aviation accelerates path to market with $55M DoD contract

Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) company Joby Aviation’s strategy for launching commercially in 2025 is becoming more clear.

The startup secured a $55 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense Tuesday, a deal that will allow the company to put its aircraft into customers’ hands and start generating revenue before it has achieved Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification.

That’s because Joby is pursuing two paths to market — a broader commercial service that requires FAA certification and a government service that requires military airworthiness from the DoD. The former includes certification of the aircraft design, production and maintenance, as well as pilot training and operating procedures. The latter is more focused on ensuring an aircraft meets the needs of military operations.

Both certifications still come from the FAA, which in November issued airworthiness criteria for Joby to certify its Model JAS4-1 aircraft to operate in U.S. airspace. The company had also previously received airworthiness approval from the Air Force for an uncrewed electric aircraft in 2020.

When it comes to Joby’s other path to commercialization — which is similar to a ride-share app where customers pay to be transported via Joby’s air taxis — the company is chipping away at its FAA requirements. In February, Joby began final assembly on its company-conforming eVTOL, which is a prototype that’s a couple steps away from the final version.

The company also completed the second stage of a process with the FAA to achieve type certification. Joby still has a few more stages in that process before it can move onto production certification, which will allow the company to mass produce its eVTOLs.

There’s a lot of overlap between the two paths to certification. Paul Sciarra, Joby executive chairman, says the value of that is twofold.

“One is that we get to basically put product into the hands of customers a lot more quickly, generate revenue more quickly, but then also gain the learnings of what it takes to operate these aircraft, what it takes to train pilots, what it takes to dispatch the vehicles,” Sciarra told TechCrunch. “And we do that in a smaller, more controlled setting before bringing it to the broader consumer side.”

The latest injection of capital from the DoD marks Joby’s third extension of its Agility Prime contract with the U.S. Air Force, an initiative launched in April 2020 to test, experiment and accelerate the development of eVTOL for cross commercial and military use. This week’s contract brings the total potential value of Joby’s current contract up to $131 million, according to the company.

As part of the agreement, Joby will deliver and operate up to nine of its five-seat, low-noise electric aircraft, the first two of which are expected to be delivered to Edwards Air Force Base in California by spring 2024. Joby’s eVTOLs will be used to demonstrate logistics use cases, like transporting people and cargo, as well as potentially medical evacuations.

Joby will retain ownership of the aircraft, while providing military pilots with flight training. The training sessions have already commenced at Joby’s manufacturing facility in Marina, California. Earlier this month, four pilots became the first Air Force personnel to fly Joby’s eVTOL through the full flight envelope, including transition from vertical to wingborne flight. The flights were piloted remotely from the ground, and the pilots were trained in a combination of classroom-based and simulator training, the company said.

“This next step of getting Air Force pilots trained and operating Joby aircraft at an Air Force installation is an incredibly important milestone for the program, providing key insights to actual operations and use case validation for Advanced Air Mobility aircraft,” said Lt. Col. Tom Meagher, division lead of Agility Prime, in a statement. “Additionally, the Joby operations provide an outstanding opportunity for accelerated learning with the other Department of Defense services and government agencies, including NASA and the FAA.”

Sciarra said Joby’s initial deployment is hopefully the first stage of even larger contracts with different government agencies over time.

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