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Hypersonic research could lead to future spy drone

The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded a $9.8 million contract to the University of Dayton Research Institute to develop materials able to withstand the extremes of hypersonic flight.

The Air Force could use the advanced composites in a high-flying unmanned reusable reconnaissance air vehicle by the 2030s, according to Robert Mercier, chief engineer for AFRL’s high speed systems division in the Aerospace Systems Directorate at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“We’re looking for something that will give us more airplane-like operations,” he said. “In our research portfolio, we’re looking at ways to do more frequent and affordable flying of hypersonic systems.”

Flying at five times the speed of sound – the barrier to hypersonic flight – or faster, stresses materials with both high temperatures and pressures, researchers say.

RELATED: Hypersonic vehicle hits over 3,300 mph, started at Wright-Patt

Speeding at up to Mach 6, Mercier compared the hypersonic concept cruising at 80,000 to 100,000 feet to a former reconnaissance drone, dubbed D-21, but “on steroids.” The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drone flew in the range of Mach 3, or three times the speed of sound.

A manned version of a future hypersonic vehicle might follow, he said.

The latest research aims to develop more durable, less labor-intensive materials than, for example, the space shuttle which had thermal tiles covering the space plane to protect it from heat.

RELATED: Drones, lasers, hypersonic weapons will be ‘game-changers’

The three-year contract with UDRI will explore the use of ceramic matrix composites to withstand the pressures in laboratory tests, researchers said. Hypersonics is one of the key technologies the research institute has targeted.

“The goal is to try to inch forward so we can get things flying in the near future,” said Steven E. Olson, a UDRI researcher working on the project.

UDRI has experimented with hypersonic materials off and on for decades, and the contract is a renewed push, he said.

The materials could have both military and commercial uses, he said.

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“Designing vehicles that can survive extreme environmental stresses is critical but challenging, requiring unique structural configurations and advanced materials,” he said in a statement.

UDRI will work with the University of Tennessee and Purdue University on aerodynamic modeling and wind tunnel testing.

The Air Force joined with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency in hypersonic X-51 Waverider flight tests. The experimental air vehicle shaped like a missile was launched off a B-52 and reached speeds over Mach 5 over the Pacific. The tests ended in 2013.

“We learned a bit from the X-51 but we’re really pushing (beyond) that,” Mercier said.

RELATED: Air Force research hits commercial market

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