WASHINGTON — The Defense Innovation Unit expects to fly an experimental hypersonic cruise vehicle as early as next summer in support of the Pentagon’s drive to boost its flight-test cadence.
The agency, which aims to push technology from non-traditional and commercial companies to military users, awarded a contract in March through its Hypersonic and High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities, or HyCAT, program. The company’s DART AE demonstration platform will pair with a launch provider, showcasing its ability to support Defense Department testing needs.
DIU is partnered with the Pentagon’s Test Resource Management Center and the principal director for hypersonics on the project, which aims to use commercial aircraft, payloads and supporting technology to relieve the strain on government testing infrastructure.
Lt. Col. Nicholas Estep, HyCAT program manager, told C4ISRNET that to prepare for next summer’s flight, DIU is refining the details of the mission, including the flight conditions, the launch provider and the location. While DART AE has flown, this will be the vehicle’s first fully integrated, autonomous flight.
“These next couple months are really where we’re going to solidify exactly how that’s going to look,” Estep said in a May 26 interview. “We’re trying to basically validate and make sure that we understand exactly how that mission has to run from start to finish.”
The U.S. Defense Department has about 70 programs focused on developing weapons and aircraft that can travel and maneuver at hypersonic speeds, or faster than Mach 5. The testing infrastructure needed to validate those projects, including aircraft and ground-based test beds, is in high demand, limiting the number of flight tests for major programs to a few trials each year.
The Pentagon wants to increase that rate to one hypersonic test flight per week, and HyCAT is part of its strategy for reaching that target. The program is particularly focused on leveraging commercial capabilities to help the department hit that higher cadence at a low cost.
Hypersonix is one of three companies awarded contracts through HyCAT since the program was initiated last September. Rocket Lab and Fenix Space will provide launch capabilities, and DIU expects to announce a fourth company to provide a second test vehicle. Neither the firms nor DIU have disclosed the value of their agreements.
The organization is eyeing a second phase to the program, dubbed HyCAT 2, where it will select companies to provide payloads and other technology to integrate onto the test vehicles. Those capabilities include alternative navigation, advanced communication, manufacturing technology and low-cost materials.
Barry Kirkendall, DIU’s technical director for space, said that while the lowest-cost HyCAT configuration would be a reusable experimental cruise vehicle, that option likely won’t be available until the end of the decade. For now, he said, the focus is on convening teams of contractors that can create relatively low-cost test options using proven technology.
“The DIU program is evolutionary in nature. We’re starting out by saying, ‘Let’s do something cheaper. Let’s do something higher cadence,’” he told C4ISRNET in the same interview. “There are many needs in the hypersonic community. We’re just addressing here at DIU the need for a low-cost, high-cadence test platform for better understanding hypersonic flight.”
While other Pentagon efforts address ground and flight testing, HyCAT is honing in on long-duration airborne missions. According to Kirkendall, when the program conducts a successful test, it will feed that capability into another DoD test program, the Multi-Service Advanced Capability Hypersonics Testbed, to use as needed.
Estep said DIU expects HyCAT to drive the cost of flight testing lower over time, but noted that the program hasn’t set specific requirements around cost. The organization has an “internal estimate” of what it thinks the first flight’s price tag will be, but he declined to share it.
“In general, going through this approach where we’re not dictating the exact requirements of the mission and doing a very traditional DoD acquisition with a traditional integrated prime, we know that it’s going to be a less cost for user than one of those . . . traditional hypersonic missions,” he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.