Several countries are currently developing hypersonic aircraft. In the overwhelming majority of cases, we are talking about rockets and gliders that are not designed for reusable use. There are also rare exceptions – for example, projects by Lockheed Martin, Rolls-Royce and Boeing to create hypersonic aircrafts.
Hermeus, a Georgia-based aerospace startup, wanted to develop a groundbreaking Mach 5 commercial aircraft, and they already scored partnerships with none other than NASA and the U.S. Air Force (USAF). The USAF has signed a $60 million contract with Hermeus to develop and test the company’s first Quarterhorse unmanned hypersonic aircraft and propulsion systems.
Quarterhorse will validate the company’s proprietary turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) engine, based around the GE J85 turbojet engine, and is the first in a line of autonomous high-speed aircraft. By the end of the flight test campaign, Quarterhorse will be the world’s fastest reusable aircraft flying at Mach 5 hypersonic speeds and the first of its kind to fly a TBCC engine.
The hypersonic aircraft will be autonomous or remotely piloted, with an outstanding 4,600 miles (7,403 km) range. With the Quarterhorse, Hermeus will carry out a series of tests, trials, and demonstrations so that, in the future, it will be able to develop a hypersonic aircraft capable of carrying up to 20 passengers.
Earlier this year, the company partnered with NASA to study its technology’s maturity and exchange subject matter expertise.
To flight test a TBCC engine across the full flight envelope, Hermeus will be leveraging autonomous and reusable systems, ruthlessly focused requirements, and a hardware-rich program. These three strategies allow the team to push the envelope, sometimes strategically to the point of failure in-flight tests, which accelerates learning while simultaneously improving the safety of flight test crew and the public.
The technology set Hermeus has chosen positions the company firmly in the dual-use space for hypersonic technology, i.e., technologies normally used for civilian purposes but which may have military applications. “While this partnership with the U.S. Air Force underscores U.S. Department of Defense interest in hypersonic aircraft, when paired with Hermeus’ partnership with NASA announced in February 2021, it is clear that there are both commercial and defense applications for what we’re building,” said Hermeus CEO and co-founder, AJ Piplica.