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VIDEO & PICTURES: Northrop Grumman unveils Firebird

Northrop Grumman has unveiled its Firebird optionally-piloted surveillance aircraft, which was designed and built by its Mojave, California-based Scaled Composites division.

Firebird is designed to carry up to four sensors simultaneously, flying at 25,000ft (7,620m) or below for up to 40h. The first payload tested, according to programme manager Rick Crooks, was an electro-optical/infrared camera. Video footage released by the company later shows the experimental aircraft carrying a FLIR Systems Star Safire camera.

The aircraft has also been flown since at least August 2010 with synthetic aperture radars and communications and electronic intelligence payloads.


Both images © Northrop Grumman

The Firebird also has the hardpoints required to carry weapons, Northrop confirmed last week, but weaponisation has not been discussed in detail.

Though the aircraft was designed for the US military, the Firebird does not readily slot into any defined capability requirements.

© Northrop Grumman
Dated November 2010, this image shows the Firebird in unmanned guise

"I would expect to see, over the course of the next year, a change or an evolution [in US Army thinking] to consider this a strong capability," said Crooks.

The aircraft will be demonstrated at the army's upcoming Empire Challenge exercise, where it will be tested in a range of scenarios. By demonstrating Firebird's capabilities, Northrop hopes to "change the buying habits" of the US Army.

Some demonstration flights have taken place in the presence of US military officials from several services, but no concrete international interest has yet appeared. "We do think that there [are] international opportunities," said Crooks, "but we're going one step at a time with this process."

© Mark Greenberg/Northrop Grumman

Several pictures of the Firebird emerged on the internet before its official unveiling, posted to websites by curious aircraft enthusiasts. At least one detailed photograph showed the aircraft being serviced at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, California, where Northrop tests electronics.

Though only one aircraft is flying, it is not simply a technology demonstrator. Northrop "has the infrastructure in place" to begin production.

For more on the Firebird's emergence, see Stephen Trimble's The DEW Line blog

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