This month, within Hermeus’ Atlanta facility, a 40-foot curved aluminum framework awaited its role. This framework represented Quarterhorse, a prototype drone that won’t take to the skies but will initiate ground tests in September.
Hermeus CEO AJ Piplica and co-founders envision this as the initial step toward their ambitious objective: crafting a plane capable of carrying 20 passengers at hypersonic speeds, equivalent to 3,850 miles per hour five times faster than sound. Imagine traveling from New York to Paris in just 90 minutes, a significant upgrade from today’s seven-and-a-half-hour commercial flights.
The Concorde’s final flight was two decades ago, and multiple startups attempting to revive supersonic travel haven’t gained traction. Hermeus acknowledges even greater technical challenges creating an airplane enduring extended periods of high-speed flight. However, Piplica believes business challenges are the real obstacle. Raising billions for passenger aircraft development isn’t straightforward.
Piplica’s approach is to employ Pentagon funding to develop smaller hypersonic drones, capitalizing on the military’s hypersonic missile pursuit. Quarterhorse serves as a reusable testbed, receiving a $30 million U.S. Air Force contract to build and fly three iterations, with the first flight in 2024, costing under $100 million.
Darkhorse, a larger drone, is planned for 2026 flight testing. It will serve as a test vehicle and for surveillance and strike missions.
Charting the Path to Hypersonic Innovation and Viability
If successful, Hermeus aims to develop 6 to 10 prototypes each of Quarterhorse and Darkhorse, tackling technical challenges. Their experience aims to pave the way for hypersonic drones generating Defense Department revenue.
This foundation enables transitioning to Halcyon, their planned airliner, without massive private capital. Hermeus raised $119 million, securing a $400 million valuation after a March 2022 B round.
Hypersonic flight presents a substantial challenge, experts say. The task isn’t achieving hypersonic speeds missiles and spacecraft accomplish that but creating a durable and reusable craft. The friction at high speeds generates intense heat. Achieving hypersonic flight’s predictability demands the fusion of chemistry, quantum mechanics, and aerodynamics, a complex endeavor.
An essential requirement for a successful hypersonic airliner is its durability, with a lifespan comparable to subsonic vehicles. Piplica acknowledges the challenge of predicting Halcyon’s lifespan, planning to gather data from Quarterhorse and Darkhorse tests. Their focus on military-funded drones leverages the urgency in hypersonic missile development.
Various companies explore hypersonic possibilities. Stratolaunch develops a rocket-powered hypersonic test vehicle, while startups like Venus Aerospace and Destinus seek breakthroughs in propulsion technology. Research and funding are diverse and evolving.
As the Mach number rises, material costs, maintenance, fuel, and ticket prices increase. Studies suggest Mach 2 to 3 aircraft, accommodating 20 to 30 passengers, hold the most economic potential.
Navigating the Hypersonic Landscape
Advanced technology implies increased costs. For instance, a hypothetical 20-passenger Mach 5 aircraft with 4,000 miles of range could cost over $10,000 per ticket. Piplica’s strategy optimizes Chimera for Mach 3 to 5 speeds, offering Hermeus flexibility. Despite potential in Mach 1 to 2 for passenger service, supersonic startups face military unattractiveness and financial limitations, unlike Hermeus’ plan to fund through drones.
However, Pentagon experimentation can change direction. After heightened hypersonic weapons spending under Trump, skepticism about their value persists. Congressional Budget Office findings suggest these weapons could cost more and be less survivable than ballistic missiles.
Creating a maneuverable hypersonic vehicle solely for one-way missions is challenging. Thus, discussions of hypersonic transportation remain more speculative at this stage, a concept comparable to science fiction. Some, like Richard Aboulafia, find the notion that a small startup can revolutionize a century-long path to be unusual.
While Hermeus draws attention with its aircraft concepts, other entities focus on foundational components for hypersonic flight, quiet but significant endeavors that complement startup progress.
In 2023, Congress allocated $5.8 billion to the Pentagon for about 70 hypersonic projects, up from $500 million in 2016. Progress is sluggish due to a lack of accurate wind tunnels and infrequent flight trials. This drives Hermeus’ focus on drone testing.
Other entities also delve into hypersonic domains. Stratolaunch is developing an air-launched rocket-powered test vehicle, while startups like Venus Aerospace and Destinus explore innovative propulsion. Amid the spotlight on startups, quieter research and development efforts continue, shaping the hypersonic landscape.
Hermeus forges ahead with its daring vision of hypersonic travel. Quarterhorse, a prototype drone, symbolizes their first stride, set for ground tests. The ambitious journey involves creating an airliner capable of ferrying 20 passengers at breathtaking speeds. While facing technical and business challenges, Hermeus embraces Pentagon support, utilizing drones as stepping stones. This path to innovation, if successful, could reshape aviation.