Concept art of the new XRQ-73 (Credit: DARPA)

DARPA Teases Newest ‘X-Plane’ Images as Mysterious Hybrid Electric Propulsion Craft Gets Official Designation

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has revealed the official designation of a next-generation X-plane it currently has under development.

The aircraft, now officially dubbed the XRQ-73, is part of DARPA’s Series Hybrid Electric Propulsion AiRcraft Demonstration (SHEPARD) program, which the agency defines as an X-prime program.

SHEPARD program manager Steve Komadina said DARPA X-prime programs aim “to take emerging technologies and burn down system-level integration risks to quickly mature a new missionized long endurance aircraft design that can be fielded quickly.”

By utilizing existing hybrid electric architecture and other related technologies from earlier work completed in cooperation with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) Great Horned Owl (GHO) project, Komadina says the SHEPARD program will advance “a specific propulsion architecture and power class as an exemplar of potential benefits for the Department of Defense.”

Komadina previously said in a statement that the newly designated XRQ-73 will be a new mission-focused aircraft design, which DARPA is aspiring to have in the air within the next few months. The completed X-plane design will be larger scale than its predecessor X-Plane, the XRQ-72, which was developed under the AFRL and IARPA GHO project.

Concept art depicting the “evolution” of the XRQ-73 from its predcessor aicraft, the XRQ-72 (Credit: DARPA).

In addition to being a slightly larger aircraft, the new XRQ-72 will feature “operationally representative fuel fraction and mission systems while staying below the Group 3 UAS weight limit,” Komadina said.

The XRQ-72 is just one of the X-planes DARPA is currently developing. It is not to be confused with a similarly named aircraft in a separate, unrelated program. Earlier this year, The Debrief reported on an experimental high-speed, vertical-lift X-plane the agency is developing under another DARPA project, the Speed and Runway Independent Technologies (SPRINT) program.

In May, DARPA revealed new imagery of the SPRINT program’s X-plane, which is presently advancing toward its preliminary design phase. DARPA’s primary contractor on the SPRINT program for the development of its experimental aircraft is Aurora Flight Sciences, a Boeing company.

Weighing just over 7000 pounds, the SPRINT program aircraft, formally designated the X-65, will be a technology demonstrator with a 30-foot wingspan and is expected to reach speeds close to Mach 0.7.

By comparison, the SHEPARD program’s new XRQ-73 aircraft will be a Group 3 Uncrewed Aerial System (UAS) weighing just 1,250 pounds.

Presently, the SHEPARD program is leveraging assets from the AFRL, as well as the Office of Naval Research and other members of the U.S. armed forces as part of its team. DARPA revealed earlier this week that its prime contractor for the program will be Northrop Grumman Corporation’s Aeronautics Systems sector in Redondo Beach, CA.

Based on current timelines, the inaugural flight of the XRQ-73 is expected to occur by sometime before the end of 2024.

Micah Hanks is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of The Debrief. He can be reached by email at micah@thedebrief.org. Follow his work at micahhanks.com and on X: @MicahHanks.