Northrop Grumman sees potential for its Firebird optionally manned intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in Australia, as the type prepares for service entry in the USA.

A “US government customer” will receive its first example “before mid-year,” according to company vice-president Brian Chappel.

He declined to discuss details but said that the customer has placed multiple orders. As for Australia, the company plans to bring a Firebird to the country in the second half of 2019, allowing potential customers to get a feel for it.

He listed several missions for the type including overland and littoral ISR, homeland security, communications, environmental monitoring, and maritime surveillance.

“[Firebird offers] endurance, range…Australia is a big continent with lots of water around it,” says Chappel. “There are some upcoming activities for missions that the Border Force for example would be very interested in. We’re looking and seeing how this might fit those requirements.”

Its ability to operate as a manned aircraft allows it to either transit or operate in civilian airspace. When unmanned operations are necessary, the aircraft can be converted in just four hours. The aircraft’s pilots can operate the aircraft when it’s in an unmanned configuration.

Mission payloads can be swapped within 30 minutes, and the aircraft can carry five payloads simultaneously. When operating as medium altitude long endurance (MALE) aircraft the Firebird’s endurance is over 30 hours.

Northrop says that the Firebird has advantages over both manned and autonomous aircraft. Advantages over manned aircraft include lower operating costs, increased persistence, and payload flexibility. The type’s main advantage over purely autonomous assets is the ability for manned operations in controlled airspace.

Separately, Australia's Department of Defence signed an agreement with Northrop Grumman. Under the Australian Industry Capability (AIC) deed, says defence minister Christopher Pyne, Northrop Grumman committed to "pursuing the use of Australian industry in their supply chain for any future government-to-government procurements."