Mother Of All Drones! US Prepares To Test Hypersonic Drone That Can Fly 5 Times The Speed Of Sound

The US Air Force has announced it is going to conduct the flight testing of a one-of-its-kind hypersonic drone as part of a contract with the Atlanta-based startup Hermeus Hypersonic.

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This move comes days after the Air Force failed in its second attempt to test a prototype of the AGM-183A Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), a hypersonic missile.

The hypersonic plane, known as the Quarterhorse, has been designed to test the turbine-based combined cycle (TBCC) engine, modeled on the GE J85 turbojet engine, according to a company press release. 

“By the end of the flight test campaign, Quarterhorse will be the fastest reusable aircraft in the world and the first of its kind to fly a TBCC engine,” the company said. The plane has been designed to fly at a speed of almost five times the speed of sound.

If successful, the test would pave the way for the development of a hypersonic passenger plane, which could cut down the travel time from Paris to New York to only 90 minutes from the seven and a half hours it takes at present.

Concept design of a hypersonic drone, Quarterhorse. (Image: Hermeus)

The company will receive a $60 million Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract (phase 2), brokered by the Air Force’s innovation hub, AFWERX. The contract is being funded by “Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Presidential and Executive Airlift Directorate, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), and various venture capital sources,” according to the service’s press release.

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In August 2020, the company was granted a smaller contract, following a successful test of a Mach 5 engine prototype, which was conducted by Hermeus in February 2020.

“The engagement with Hermeus is part of a larger effort led by the directorate to fuel the burgeoning commercial resurgence of high-speed passenger travel and has been dubbed the ‘Vector Initiative’,” the release explains.

“The initiative aims to partner with commercial sector leaders to accelerate their development and, as a by-product, advance enabling technologies that could provide the Air Force options for a variety of missions”.

A similar model is being tested by the Air Force as it tried to prime the commercial pump for “flying cars”, an electronic vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) vehicle, as part of its Agility Program. This will enable the military to leverage both the technology as well as cost savings.

Concept design of a hypersonic passenger plane Hermeus is planning to develop. (via Twitter)

AFWERX had awarded its first flight-worthiness certification under this program on December 10 to Joby Aviation, which is based in Santa Cruz, California, for its four-person prototype.

While the concept seems to be captivating, there is one aviation expert who is not fully convinced that we will see a Mach 5 Air Force One anytime soon, Breaking Defense reported.

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“$60 million for this project is roughly akin to moving a centimeter in a journey around the world,” said Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia in an email.

“There are so many building block technologies that need to happen first. So, it’s a bit silly, but the appeal of the theoretical end result is undeniable”, he was quoted as saying by Breaking Defense.

— Written by Kashish Tandon