Friday, May 6, 2011

EXCLUSIVE: Northrop Grumman's Firebird

EXCLUSIVE: Northrop Grumman's Firebird: "Unsatisfied with the dominance of General Atomics in the MALE UAS market, Northrop Grumman has secretly been developing and testing its Firebird.

The design was purpose-built from the ground up at its Scaled Composites facility and first flight took place in February 2010. Since then, officials have conducted various flight tests, mostly out of Mojave, Calif.

blog post photo
source: Northrop Grumman

Company officials chose an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) design to offer the endurance of a UAS -- Firebird is designed for 40 hr. depending on payload -- but the flexibility of transiting with a pilot onboard. While this is likely to be attractive to the Pentagon as long as it continues to wrangle with the FAA over rules for flying UAS outside of military controlled airspace, the market is not likely as robust as that for the Predator/Reaper/Gray Eagle MALE family.

However, there could be potential to sell it abroad if the U.S. government will allow it. The flexibility of an OPV could be especially attractive in the dense airspace over Europe.

Firebird is designed with four onboard stations for sensors as well as two hard points on the wings for weapons (which have yet to be demonstrated). Company officials plan to demonstrate the ability to operate four payloads (various intel gathering and communications relays) during one mission, land, reconfigure the payload and launch within an hour during the Joint Forces Command Empire Challenge exercise slated for later this month at Fort Huachuca, Ariz.

Plane spotters have captured some glimpses of Firebird during its test flights. While spending most of its time in Mojave, the aircraft has also flown out of McClellan airfield, a former U.S. Air Force facility. But, the company has kept the development project close to the vest.

Click here to read today's Aviation Week version of this story: Exclusive: Northrop Unveils Firebird MALE Aircraft

Read Monday's edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology for the full, exclusive story on Firebird and Northrop's plans for the aircraft.

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