At 35 feet long with an 80-foot wingspan, the Firebird from Northrop Grumman Corp. (NYSE: NOC) can fly two ways — with a pilot onboard or without. A ground crew can convert the lanky, propeller driven machine from a manned aircraft to an unmanned one in less than two hours. Seats, controls and a cabin heater come out. An enclosed satellite dish is mounted in their place, and a crew can fly by remote control.
Northrop Grumman chose March to take its product on a nationwide tour. It showed its capabilities to officials with the U.S. military and other federal agencies, as well as representatives of foreign governments. The company sees potential markets overseas.
“We’re really excited about where we’re going with this platform,” said Jon Haun, autonomous systems chief strategist at Northrop Grumman.
The business houses its Firebird program in Rancho Bernardo, which is home base for many other unmanned programs. Northrop Grumman also produces the Global Hawk, Triton and Fire Scout unmanned aircraft for the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. While it does office work locally, it builds the aircraft in other locations.
Government and Commercial Work
Currently there are three Firebird aircraft flying and more in production, said Haun.
Early customers have been Tenax Aerospace and Grand Sky Development Co. LLC. The former is a government contractor; the latter performs services such as precision agriculture. Haun said the aerospace company is talking to a few other potential clients.
Firebird can be fitted with various sensors — the customer’s choice — to collect intelligence. Ron Stearns, a consultant specializing in unmanned systems and robotics, said he has seen the aircraft carrying myriad antennas, which are good indication it is “trying to soak up all the information it can from the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Generally unmanned aircraft are not allowed to fly in the national airspace, so users turn to other means to transport it to its place of use. Some models break down for shipment in containers. Firebird’s operators have the option to use an onboard pilot to fly the craft to wherever it needs to operate, and convert it to the unmanned configuration.
That ability to self-deploy through any airspace “has always been very interesting to me,” said Stearns.
A $20 Million Price Tag
The aircraft weighs 7,500 pounds at takeoff. A payload bay of 32 cubic feet holds sensor electronics; to date it has supported 25 payloads, which can be integrated in as little as a day, Haun said. The aircraft has a range of 3,000 miles and can stay aloft for 30 hours.
The aircraft costs in the range of $20 million to $25 million, including the ground control station. Firebird comes with a basic sensor but the customer is likely to spend more on a sensor package optimized for whatever job the customer wants.
The aircraft is built for expeditionary requirements, using few people and a “small logistics footprint,” Haun said. Nine people are able to operate two aircraft for 120 days. The only special equipment they need is a forklift, Haun said. It is inexpensive to operate and costs half the price of other systems operating in a similar way, he said.
During the March trip, Northrop Grumman crews flew the Firebird almost 9,000 miles. A stop in Dayton, Ohio showed the aircraft to Air Force officials, including those who work with other unmanned systems. Another stop in Patuxent River, Maryland showed it off to the Navy. There were also stops in Washington D.C. and Florida — in Tampa, Miami and Key West.
In Tampa, Northrop Grumman officials met with representatives of the U.S. Special Operations Command and their special operations counterparts from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Chile, Brazil and Japan.
Northrop Grumman also met with representatives of India. That government has a need to survey its northern border as well as the waters off its east and west coasts, Haun said. He said the aircraft can operate from a relatively undeveloped airfield with a grass strip.
The U.S. government would have to approve export of the aircraft to foreign countries.
Possible uses include flying communications equipment above a battlefield, or detecting semisubmersible boats smuggling drugs into the United States.
One recent event showed off Firebird’s capability to do the latter. Haun said the aircraft was using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to detect anomalies in the water off the California coast. From 8,000 feet, it spotted something. Turning a camera on it, operators saw a 3-foot diameter sunfish.
In the fall of 2020, the company displayed the aircraft’s capabilities to Cal Fire for several days when Northrop Grumman flew the aircraft over the fires in Napa.
Northrop Grumman Seeks Out Customers for Unmanned Aircraft