In the sprawling Hermeus plant in Atlanta, a 12-meter aluminum frame prototype drone named the Quarterhorse stands as a testament to audacity. It’s a machine that will never take to the skies but will undergo rigorous ground tests starting this September. The company’s CEO, AJ Piplika, written in AINOnline, and his team believe this is the first step toward a future where hypersonic air travel is not just possible but routine. The Quarterhorse is intended to be a reusable test model whose materials and equipment will be used at high speeds. The company has signed a contract with the U.S. Air Force for $30 million, which will be used to build and launch three versions of the aircraft into the sky. The first flight is planned for 2024, and Piplika predicts that the total design cost will not exceed $100 million.
Two decades have passed since the Concorde, the supersonic jetliner, made its last flight. Since then, the aviation industry has been in a race to bring back supersonic travel. Hermeus aims to go beyond that, targeting hypersonic speeds—five times the speed of sound. The startup’s ambition is to build an aircraft that can carry 20 passengers at nearly 6200 km per hour. This is a monumental leap from the current seven and a half hours it takes to fly from New York to Paris, according to Euro News, on a typical commercial flight. The idea of cutting that time down to a mere 90 minutes is not just revolutionary; it’s almost unfathomable.
However, the challenges are not just technical. “The hardest part is building the business,” Piplika said. Indeed, billions of dollars and cutting-edge technology alone won’t suffice to design a passenger plane that can sustain such speeds. The company decided to prove that the technology is beneficial to the Pentagon and will develop small hypersonic drones, taking advantage of Washington’s desire to catch up with Russia and China in creating maneuverable hypersonic missiles. This strategic alignment with military objectives provides Hermeus with a unique advantage, as it opens up an additional revenue stream and offers a testing ground for their technology.
Hermeus has found an unlikely ally in the Pentagon. The U.S. Department of Defense’s interest in hypersonic technology, particularly in catching up with Russia and China, has led to a $30 million contract for Hermeus. The funds will be used to build and launch three versions of the Quarterhorse, with the first flight planned for 2024. A second and larger drone, the Darkhorse, which Hermeus hopes to begin flight testing in 2026, is also planned to be used as a test vehicle, as well as for early detection and strike. The head of Hermeus expects that when all testing is completed, the fleet of hypersonic drones will generate a solid income, performing missions for the U.S. Department of Defense.
The challenges of hypersonic travel are not just about speed but also about sustainability. As an aircraft accelerates, it faces increasing heat and pressure, requiring materials that can withstand these conditions. The SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest manned aircraft with an air-breathing engine, had to deal with fuel leaks on the runway because its tanks only sealed during flight when the metal expanded due to heat. This is a significant engineering challenge that Hermeus must overcome to make hypersonic travel a reality. The company intends to obtain this information with the help of Quarterhorse and Darkhorse, and thanks to the desire of the American authorities to develop hypersonic weapons, the venture may turn out to be a success.
According to a study by SpaceWorks, a ticket for a 20-passenger plane flying at Mach 5 could cost more than $10,000 per person. Piplika argues that Hermeus’s approach, focusing on a speed range of Mach 3 to Mach 5, offers flexibility and a more viable business model. This is especially true when considering the military applications of their technology. By that time, Hermeus “will have built a sufficiently stable financial foundation for investment in Halcyon without astronomical amounts of private capital,” Piplika said. The strength of this plan is that the company has already raised $119 million, and the entire business was valued at $400 million as of March 2022.
Hermeus is not alone in this race. Venus Aerospace is developing a rotating detonation rocket engine that aims for speeds of Mach 9. Swiss startup Destinus is working on a hydrogen-powered aircraft targeting Mach 15. However, as NASA’s Mary Jo Long-Davies warns, the higher the Mach number, the more exotic the materials needed, and the greater the maintenance costs. Several studies on the economics of ultra-high-speed air travel that the U.S. space agency has funded over the past four years have shown that as speed increases so does fuel costs and likely ticket prices. There are many assumptions in the results of those studies, but the compilers concluded that the aircraft flying with 20-30 passengers on board in a relatively leisurely range from Mach 2 to Mach 3 have the highest market potential.
From Skunk Works, Blue Origin, and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency – our board of advisors create a dream team of aerospace wisdom. They join us for a special podcast episode to chat about the Hermeus early days and more: https://t.co/JfHb07sPb2 pic.twitter.com/a6Sc16yUaK
— Hermeus (@hermeuscorp) August 21, 2023
While Hermeus has garnered significant investment and attention, the path to hypersonic travel is fraught with uncertainties. The Pentagon, known for its fickleness in funding projects, could change course. Critics question the viability of hypersonic aircraft, which could be a third more expensive than comparable ballistic missiles and less reliable. Richard Abulafia of consulting firm AeroDynamic Advisory said, “It’s not easy to build even a one-way steerable supersonic aircraft with an explosion at the end, so talk of hypersonic transport remains in the ‘Ray Bradbury stories’ section for now.”
In the grand scheme of things, Hermeus’s endeavor is not just about breaking speed barriers; it’s about reshaping our understanding of what’s possible in aviation and, by extension, in human endeavor. Whether or not they succeed, their audacious attempts are already catalyzing a new wave of thought in aerospace technology and beyond. As we stand on the cusp of what could be a new era in aviation, the question remains: Can Hermeus overcome not just the speed of sound but also the numerous hurdles that stand in its way?