Northrop Grumman expects to deliver its first optionally manned Firebird aircraft to a US government customer before mid-2019. The company will demonstrate the aircraft in Europe and the Middle East in 2019 and in Australia in 2020.
Northrop Grumman's autonomous division senior vice-president and general manager, Brian Chappel, told Jane's on 28 February at the 2019 Avalon Airshow that the company has "multiple orders over multiple years for US government customers and had been in production for the last three years".
The Firebird is designed to combine the advantages of manned flight with the ability to deploy easily and operate in controlled airspace and unmanned, as well as lower cost and longer endurance. This conversion from manned to unmanned involves the removal of two seats and the console and the installation of a satcom link and an opaque cover.
Main applications for the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) platform are littoral and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations as an alternative to larger platforms such as Triton or Predator. The company declined to list a price, but it is described as less than that of a Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).
Chappel said the conversion takes less than four hours and requires a minimal amount of equipment, all of which can be carried in a standard utility vehicle. The platform can carry five payloads at once.
"It has an IP-based [Internet Protocol-based] open mission architecture and payloads can be switched in less than 30 minutes, and we have demonstrated with customer-provided payloads that payloads can be ready within 60 minutes," he said.
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