No matter how ambitious the innovation, it’s always about doing more with less


As we head to the Friday nomination deadline for our Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers campaign, we learn about a company which has been able to “build a hypersonic testing platform at probably a fraction” of the cost required by a major defence contractor, according to its CEO. Brent Balinski speaks to Matt Hill from Hypersonix Launch Systems.

One of the surprises of 2023 was a promising Australian aerospace company earning its first contract.

The company in question was not just any old aerospace company, but one with the audacious vision of flying to space. It plans to use reusable, scramjet-powered, green hydrogen-fuelled craft to affordably deliver small satellites to where they need to go. 

And it was not just any old contract (the value of which was not given in the announcement last March.)

The Australian company was the first chosen (from a field of 63) to deliver vehicles for the Defense Innovation Unit’s Hypersonic and High-Cadence Airborne Testing Capabilities (HyCAT1) program.

Hypersonix will build three of its Dart AE vehicles for the program, with the first scheduled to launch before this year is over. DIU is part of the US Department of Defense, and aims to pick out commercial technology with national security applications and accelerate its adoption.

A Dart prototype displayed at the Carole Park launch in November (picture @AuManufacturing)

A few months afterwards, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions announced an Exclusive Teaming Agreement with the Ipswich-headquartered company, which could see them “initially procure up to 20 DART AE systems” and is “focused on providing a first-to-market capability, to test and demonstrate important hypersonic capabilities for U.S. Industry, the DoD and National Security.”

So with the interest from the US national security community, is the quest to sustainably “fly to space” (a motto which no longer features on their homepage) on hold?

“We still hold true to all of our future aspirations; we still have the same big, hairy audacious goal of flying to space,” CEO Matt Hill tells @AuManufacturing.

Even though the client [DIU] is defence-related, what we’re doing here is very much scientific-based and testing-based. So we don’t see it as much of a departure from being sustainable. 

“It’s still the same sustainable hydrogen-powered technology. Now in terms of the future technology, we do see, eventually, there being various commercial paths for what we’re doing which will be no longer underpinned as much by defence.”

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It has been asserted many times over the last few years that the United States is playing catch-up with its rivals on hypersonic development. Thus a clever Australian company is seeing its technology mature – to the point where it can collect valuable data on non-ballistic flight in a representative environment – at a very interesting time.

As David Hambling of Popular Mechanics wrote in January, “In all, Russia has three hypersonic weapons in use or development; China has three. The United States has yet to produce a fully functional hypersonic missile, but is reportedly developing at least eight of them.”

Hypersonix was founded a little over four years ago by David Waterhouse and Dr Michael Smart. The latter spent a decade as a NASA research scientist specialising in scramjets, then Professor and Chair of Hypersonic Propulsion at The University of Queensland.

The company expects to grow to 40 employees by the end of this financial year.

Its main project is currently the single-scramjet DART, which is largely additively manufactured out of inconel (Amiga Engineering is the AM contractor) and designed to fly up to Mach 7, or seven times the speed of sound. (Hypersonic speed begins at approximately Mach 5: roughly a mile per second.)

Two other craft are under development: the 12-metre long Delta Velos Orbiter launch vehicle, and a smaller, MVP version, known as VISR and about half the length. Both are based on high-temperature ceramic matrix composites – able to withstand 1,800 degrees Celsius rather than about 800 for inconel – and powered by four of Hypersonix’s SPARTAN scramjets.

SPARTAN at the Carole Park launch (picture @AuManufacturing)

Asked about the interest from abroad and its impact on the company’s direction, Hill says it’s likely the company will do some production in the US rather than just at their Carole Park engineering site.

“We’re doing everything we can to remain Australian, and even if we do go to the US, we have a heavy presence with our R&D and engineering team… here in Australia in Brisbane and also in Victoria. And we don’t see that changing,” he says. 

“…When you’re chasing investment and when… you win business things can change very quickly. But at the moment we’re an Australian company; we want to remain an Australian company.”

Hypersonix’s work is steeped in complexity, in a field where a lot remains unknown.

However, their CEO’s definition of innovation is among the simpler ones given so far in this series.

“Innovation for me is creating new knowledge that continues to create efficiency or effectiveness in the area that you’re applying it in.”

So doing more with less, basically?

“Correct. And one of the things that we’re doing with our program and one of the reasons we were successful with DIU is that we’re able to build a hypersonic testing platform at probably a fraction of what some of the larger companies could build the technology for,” says Hill. 

“And that’s through innovation, that’s through bootstrapping, that’s through being in the trenches as a scaleup or a startup. You do more with less. But also what we’re doing here is we’re trying to create something that is reusable eventually, which in itself is an innovation, because that’s doing even more with less, because you get to do it again.”

In this episode of @AuManufacturing Conversations, Hill tells us about the planned maiden launch of its Dart AE with Rocket Lab late-this year, the value of universities in running a technically demanding company, the importance of finding and keeping good staff, and more.

*an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the Defense Innovation Unit as the Defence Intelligence Unit. 

Episode guide

0:58 – Career background. Joined Hypersonix in 2022 as CFO.

3:02 – Origins of the company at The University of Queensland. 

4:02 – Likely to pass 40 employees by EOFY. Spread of the team across Sydney and Ipswich.

5:05 – Types of craft under development.

7:12 – Have the “fly to space” plans been put on hold due to interest from the defence sector? 

9:38 – The challenges being addressed through HyCat.

11:55 – The likelihood of Hypersonix remaining an Australian company.

12:50 – Definition of innovation.

14:39 – On working with universities such as UQ and University of Southern Queensland. “A model that’s very important to deep tech.”

17:26 – Getting good staff, upskilling them, and keeping them, and how you could encourage this.

Main picture: Matt Hill (credit Hypersonix Launch Systems/Linkedin)

Australia’s 50 Most Innovative Manufacturers is an annual campaign by @AuManufacturing. It has been made possible through the generous support of MYOBCSIRO, the NSW government’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Facility, and the Commonwealth Bank. Be sure to check back at this website for regular updates, including profiles of nominees and other information.


Further reading

Hypersonix signs US agreement, could supply up to 20 DART AE platforms to Kratos

Hypersonix and SoMAC CRC aim for high temperature materials

Hypersonix to “get our first ride from Rocket Lab”

Hypersonix awarded first major contract

Hypersonix successfully builds, tests prototype scramjet engine and fuel system

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