Interview and Editorial John Moody
What is hypersonic flight, and how will it revolutionise travel?
In aerodynamics, the term ‘hypersonic’ relates to the speed of an object capable of travelling faster than Mach 5 or five times the speed of sound.
Aircraft travelling at these speeds must withstand extreme temperatures and aerodynamic pressures as they move through the air, and because of this they typically only operate in the upper atmosphere where the air is thinner and the effects are less.
However, harnessing this fast moving air has also been the dream of engineers for generations. Air breathing hypersonic engines create the opportunity to disrupt the way we travel across the earth and into space, by removing the need to carry oxygen which is a key component of rocket propellant.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Mr David Waterhouse, Managing Director of Hypersonix Launch Systems, an Australian company building hypersonic vehicles capable of speeds between Mach 5 and Mach 12. Hypersonix aims to deliver small satellites to orbit using a reusable flyer powered by green Hydrogen. This is Australian sovereign capability at its best and we also get insight to the manufacturing process the company is currently employing to lower the cost of production.
David Waterhouse began his career in Electrical Engineering whilst studying at the University of Queensland (UQ) in Brisbane. “This is where I met Michael Smart (now co-founder and Hypersonix CTO), and we studied at university together. I left there, went into the telco side of things, did a few start-ups and some international roles, working many jobs no one else wanted to do, working the Antarctic and Pacific, made some successful investments and raised some capital from that. I’m a big fan of using technology to drive change. I did the first solar powered telecom network in the Cook Islands back in 1989, literally hanging telephones off palm trees” David Waterhouse said.
Hypersonix recently secured a major US contract with the United States Defence Innovation Unit (DIU), a specialist branch of the US Department of Defence that taps into non-traditional innovators in the commercial sector. DIU picked Hypersonix to deliver a prototype flyer for the Hypersonic & High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities (HyCAT) program. This is a major advancement for Australian ingenuity and indeed for any Australian company. In this interview we get a first-hand look behind the scenes at Hypersonix Launch Systems.
To tell this story we turn the clock back to the late 1980s when Professor Ray Stalker AO constructed the “T4 Shock Tunnel”, the world’s most advanced wind tunnel for the testing of hypersonic airbreathing engines called scramjets. After 10 years doing scramjet research at NASA Langley Research Station in the USA, Michael Smart returned to the UQ Centre for Hypersonics in 2005 and set about making a hydrogen fuelled scramjet that can accelerate from Mach 5 to Mach 12 and power a hypersonic spaceplane. After more than 6,000 experiments in T4 and a number of atmospheric flight tests, this led to the world leading SPARTAN scramjet engine which underpins Hypersonix Launch Systems today.
In a scramjet, the hypersonic speed of the aircraft body compresses incoming air through a series of shockwaves into the engine’s intake where temperatures rise, pressures rise and air speed decreases but still remains supersonic (faster than the speed of sound). Inside the scramjet engine, hydrogen fuel is injected and combusted with oxygen from the air to generate the vast amounts of thrust required to propel the vehicle. There is no need to carry onboard oxygen like conventional rockets do.
“Michael and I got together about four years ago meeting up at the Australian Space Congress. Michael came to me with the idea to commercialise the SPARTAN scramjet engine and we decided to form Hypersonix. The federal Department of Industry gave us a commercialisation grant, which we matched dollar for dollar and we used those funds to manufacture our first 3D printed metallic alloy scramjet engine. And that was how we kicked off the business” David Waterhouse said.
Hypersonix secured a US patent for the SPARTAN engine and continues to work closely with the UQ Centre for Hypersonics for ground based testing and research.
The vehicle we are looking at in this interview is called DART AE, a remarkable vehicle in design, looks and concept.
“An Australian first, able to match or better any hypersonic vehicle in the world”, Mr Waterhouse said. In order to lower the cost of manufacture, Hypersonix uses 3D printing technology using high temperature materials and this enables manufacture to exact specifications. 3D printing is a proven manufacturing technique of making a physical object from a computer generated three-dimensional digital model, by laying down many thin layers of material in succession to build up complex but highly accurate components.
“The great thing about Michael’s design is it’s very much the Australian way. It’s a simple design but with complex geometry, and this lends itself to 3D printing.”
Hypersonix is also on a mission to sustainability. “Other companies out there are using kerosene as their fuel, but we’re using hydrogen which provides better performance and it burns clean. What we’re trying to do is disrupt the way we fly. We can go faster, further and we’re greener” David Waterhouse said.
Hypersonix Launch Systems is able to cut years off production time, saving money and bringing their products to market faster.
Technology evolves very quickly. What was today’s latest invention can rapidly become tomorrow’s thing of the past. Only those that continuously innovate will succeed – innovation, speed to market, low cost and efficiency – that is the name of the game.
Hypersonix Launch Systems is considered a trailblazer in this unique and rapidly developing industry.
An Australian company that is literally taking off..!