Northrop Grumman unveils Firebird reconnaissance aircraft


Northrop Grumman yesterday unveiled its Firebird surveillance aircraft, which can be flow with or without a pilot. The aircraft will be demonstrated to the US military in an optionally-piloted configuration from later this month during Empire Challenge 2011.

Firebird, displayed for the first time yesterday, is designed to carry up to four sensors at the same time whilst flying at 25 000 feet (7 620 metres) for up to 40 hours at a time. Payloads can include electro-optical/infrared cameras, synthetic aperture radars and communications and electronic intelligence payloads.
“Firebird offers a large internal payload bay and an ability to operate multiple intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and communications payloads simultaneously through a universal interface,” Northrop Grumman said in a statement.

The aircraft also has hardpoints for weapons, but Northrop has not discussed this aspect of the Firebird in any detail.

Northrop Grumman developed the aircraft’s mission systems and other components while the Mojave, California, based Scaled Composites designed, build and tested the aircraft. First flight took place in February last year, 12 months after the initial concept discussions. Firebird was been tested for more than a year at the Mojave Air and Space Port before its unveiling.
“We’ve harnessed the innovative techniques of Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites to deliver an unprecedented information-gathering capability,” said Paul Meyer, vice president and general manager of advanced programs and technology for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Firebird addresses future budgetary constraints by combining the best of our piloted and unmanned ISR systems into a single solution ready for a variety of ISR missions.”
“Not only have we increased the number of ISR sensors working simultaneously in an aircraft of this size, but we can also incorporate various sensors that complement each other — greatly enhancing Firebird’s information-gathering value for warfighters,” said Rick Crooks, Northrop Grumman’s Firebird programme manager. “Firebird is an adaptable system that makes it highly affordable because of the number of different missions it can accomplish during a single flight. It’s a real game changer.”
“Military users will also find it much easier to exploit intelligence data from Firebird because the information is put into a single tool that allows them to easily make decisions,” said Crooks. “The internal payload bay also does away with the need to carry external pods to house sensor payloads that can cause drag and affect how long the aircraft can stay in the air.”

Although it has not been ordered by the American military, Northrop Grumman has designed the aircraft for the US Army and hopes its demonstration between May 23 and June 3 during Empire Challenge 2011 will get the US Army to consider ordering the system. The company already privately demonstrated the aircraft to the Pentagon in October last year. Northrop Grumman is also eyeing foreign customers for its company-funded venture.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he wants to increase the number of 24-hour drone patrols to 65 a day by 2013 from 39 currently, giving the Firebird the opportunity to try and make up the difference. However, Northrop Grumman’s latest reconnaissance aircraft will have to compete with the likes of the Predator, Reaper and other unmanned aerial systems.

The fact that the Firebird can be either manned or unmanned is a novel selling point for Northrop Grumman. “The government is always going to want options with its aircraft,” Tom Captain, aerospace analyst with Deloitte told the LA Times. “Unmanned aircraft is taking on increasingly difficult missions. However, in the fog of war, there are still situations where you need a pilot’s instinct inside the cockpit.”

The propeller-driven Firebird has an endurance of 40 hours and can reach a top speed of 230 mph (350 km/h).