AFRL's hypersonic Mayhem drone project goes to Leidos
As the world's major powers continue their never-ending arms race into the hypersonic age, the US Air Force has set Leidos to work on a large air-breathing hypersonic drone capable of handling intelligence, recon, surveillance and strike missions.
Speed is still a huge advantage in the sky, and major militaries are pushing hard to bring their weapons systems up into the hectic realm of hypersonic pace, over five times the speed of sound. The Mayhem drone will be an unmanned hypersonic aircraft capable of handling some of the kinds of missions the storied SR-71 Blackbird did in its day, kitted out with payloads specific to each mission.
There's been some speculation that the Mayhem drone might have something to do with Lockheed Martin's SR-72 "son of Blackbird" hypersonic manned aircraft, and might use a similar breakthrough "combined cycle" propulsion system to get around the fact that hypersonic scramjet engines simply don't work at runway, subsonic or even supersonic speeds.
But it seems things might be simpler. In a press release celebrating its US$334 million contract win, defense contractor Leidos describes Mayhem as, "The Expendable Hypersonic Multi-mission ISR and Strike Program" and says it'll use a scramjet for thrust. This implies that it might be incapable of taking off under its own power; it may need to be launched on a rocket capable of getting it moving fast enough for the scramjet to wake up. And scramjets have the same problems when it's time to slow down and land on a runway, as well – hence, perhaps, the "expendable" bit.
The four-and-a-half year project kicks off with a system requirements review and a conceptual design review.