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Organ Transplants and Sushi Delivery From Anywhere on Earth

Jonathan O'Callaghan
David Kramer
Elias Grau
August 1, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Ever wanted sushi delivery from your favorite Japanese restaurant — in Japan?

How about a trip from New York to London in 90 minutes? Or a life-saving organ transplant delivered around the world?

Those are the promises on offer from hypersonic aircraft development, an area of research long-touted as the next revolution in flight, but where progress has been slow over the past few decades.

Now, several companies are hoping to redefine the field and deliver on some of those science fiction-like ideas. “It’s fundamentally shifting how goods and people move around the world,” says Skyler Shuford, co-founder, and Chief Operating Officer of the US based hypersonics startup Hermeus.

The current airspeed record is still held by the SR-71 Blackbird, a sleek hypersonic vehicle developed by the US defense contractor Lockheed Martin in the mid-to-late 20th Century. Initially flown in 1966 and retired in 1999, the Blackbird was able to reach speeds higher than Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound. Its top speed, Mach 3.3 or some 2,200mph, was hit in 1976.

But since the SR-71, development in such high-speed flight has generally seemed to stall. Yet for years, organizations have wondered about the use cases of hypersonic flight, loosely defined as above Mach 5.

“If you’ve ever flown from the US to Australia, you’ll understand the allure of hypersonic flight,” says David Van Wie, an aerospace engineer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland.

“It’s an 18-hour flight. Wouldn’t it be nice to do it in a couple of hours?”

New Players

Hermeus, founded in 2018 and based in Georgia, is hoping to re-ignite the desire for hypersonic flight. It is developing an engine, Chimera, which can transition from a typical turbojet engine seen in jet aircraft to a ramjet, which uses the high pressure of incoming air to reach much higher speeds. In the SR-71, both the turbojet and ramjet remain active. “Our system fully shuts down the jet engine and turns on the ramjet,” says Shuford. “It allows us to push up to about Mach 5.”

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Next year the company hopes to fly a vehicle for the first time, an uncrewed autonomous aircraft called Quarterhorse, which will use this Chimera engine. Within a few years, Quarterhorse will attempt to break the SR-71’s record. “The third vehicle is the one where we’ll be targeting the SR-71’s air speed record,” says Shuford.

Texas-based Venus Aerospace, founded in 2020, is opting for a slightly different design. Their engine is a “rotating detonation rocket engine”, which uses a circular wave of detonation to produce a shockwave and accelerate the vehicle.

“The goal of Venus Aerospace is to kickstart this whole hypersonic economy,” says Andrew Duggleby, Chief Technology Officer and co-founder of Venus Aerospace with his partner Sarah Duggleby. “From our point of view, it really has to start with a new engine.”

Their design, a “blend between a rocket and an airplane,” says Duggleby, would initially be deployed on uncrewed drones, with the company aiming for supersonic flight in 2024. But ultimately, like Hermeus, it has much broader ambitions for passenger flight in the future. “We’re redefining first class,” says Duggleby.

Around the World

At hypersonic speeds, a flight from Seattle to Tokyo would take barely three hours. Miami to São Paulo in Brazil would be less than two hours. And Los Angeles to Hawaii? Just an hour.

Such speeds do not come cheap. The only successful commercial high-speed airliner, the Concorde, had ticket costs of more than $12,000 for a supersonic return trip from New York to London. The Concorde operated from 1976 until 2003 before being retired, encountering cost issues following a fatal crash departing Paris in 2001.

The ultimate goal of Hermeus is a hypersonic passenger aircraft called Halcyon. Capable of flying above Mach 5, it would have space for 20 passengers, flying some 90,000 feet above the ground with a range of 4,600 miles. While supersonic flight remains restricted over land, Halcyon could service some 125 global routes that had adequate stretches over ocean.

“We’re really focused on major city pairs over water,” says Shuford. “If the regulations change, we’ll be happy to expand that market by five to 10 times.”

Tickets would not come cheap, however. “It’s not something for an economy-style seat,” says A.J. Piplica, CEO and co-founder of Hermeus. “It’s targeted at business and first-class travelers, roughly on par with business class today. That’s $5,000 to cross the Atlantic one way.”

Venus Aerospace has a similar goal with its Stargazer aircraft, intended to transport about a dozen passengers at speeds of up to Mach 9 or 7,000 mph at altitudes of some 170,000 feet. “At those speeds, you could go from the West Coast of the US to Japan in an hour, and have a meeting without jetlag,” says Duggleby. “If you wanted to, you could be home by dinner.”

Next-Level Deliveries

At hypersonic speeds, novel applications start to open up. The military, of course, is interested in such technologies. But there are more unique use cases. “I guarantee you there would be some restaurant in San Francisco that would love to get the early morning sushi delivery in Japan, 6 am, from the fish markets,” says Duggleby.

Another possibility might be Amazon-like deliveries across vast distances. “It opens up overnight package delivery anywhere in the world,” says Van Wie, perhaps delivering tools or equipment to a location where they are required urgently but otherwise unavailable. “It depends on what you’re buying on Amazon and how bad you really want it,” says Shuford.

Perhaps the healthcare world would take a closer look, too. “Getting first responders to where they need to be is a strong one — anything where time matters,” says Shuford, such as “the ability to keep a heart or a lung in the right conditions.”

That could lead to “a five to 25 times increase in the area of serviceable organ donations,” he says.

There is a long way to go yet. But if hypersonics can be proven to work effectively, and eventually carry humans, the potential applications will only grow and grow.

“This is a fundamental shift in speed,” says Shuford. “Leaving New York City at 7 AM, working a whole day in London, and then getting back home in time for dinner. That’s in the realm of possibility.”

Hermeus Logo
Jonathan O'Callaghan
David Kramer
Elias Grau
August 1, 20238:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)