Operational flexibility is the secret to the Northrop Grumman Firebird's success (Studio)
Northrop Grumman’s Firebird product line aims to combine flexibility, endurance and affordability, traits that were on clear display during a series of demonstrations earlier this year.
Firebird was designed to meet the longstanding demands of operators, both military and civil, while greatly expanding their options. The aircraft is available in two configurations depending on mission requirements: unmanned and manned.
The system is similar to Northrop Grumman’s legacy systems, with a wingspan of 80 ft, a radome, and a split tail with a pusher propeller configuration, allowing for a large payload of more than 1,700 lbs.
Where Firebird differs is its novel tailorable approach, which is designed to enable maximum flexibility, said Jon Haun, director of product strategy and market development for the aircraft.
The aircraft has a flight time of over 30 hours, with more than 25 payloads integrated so far, and provides all-weather day and night operations, flexible basing and built-in autonomy.
On a broader level, Firebird’s flexibility can be seen on two key levels, Haun said.
First, operators can easily install and swap out different payloads, thanks to the design of the 35 cubic ft internal payload bay and external payload pods. Payload swap can be completed in as little as 30 minutes.
Second, Firebird’s radome can be easily removed and replaced with a two-person cockpit, meaning users can convert a UAV to a manned aircraft as needed; this can be accomplished by two people in four hours.
The provision of such a ‘two-in-one’ capability brings significant cost benefits to users, not just on the operational side but in terms of overall logistics, Haun explained.
Instead of acquiring a UAS to solve one set of problems and a manned aircraft to address another set, the user has an aircraft that can easily transition from one to the other.
They can also use the same pilots/operators, maintainers, and logistics infrastructure for both; Northrop Grumman states that five people can operate back-to-back ten hour missions, with 15 people for sustained operation.
Overall, it says the system offers operational cost savings of about 60% when compared with similar aircraft.
This focus on flexibility extends to the markets the company is targeting. On the military side, Firebird’s primary use is in tactical mission support, chiefly carrying sensors for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).
However, the company sees significant scope in other markets, such as coastguard operations and sovereignty protection/exclusive economic zone (EEZ) monitoring. Haun also highlighted emergency services, precision agriculture, and the energy sector.
That allowed us to... prove out specific mission capabilities with the aircraft in the manned configuration.— Jon Haun, director of product strategy and market development for Firebird
Northrop Grumman proved the power of Firebird’s architecture through two major trials earlier this year, effectively marking the initial operating capability of Block 2 of the aircraft. Both involved customer participation; against the backdrop of Covid, this was largely accommodated through videoconferencing systems.
The first test was held in Mojave, California, in April, and saw the aircraft being operated in manned configuration with a five-person crew, who flew it for 45 hours over the course of four days.
This demonstration underscored the array of missions for various sectors that Firebird can undertake, including wide area surveillance, pattern of life detection, search and rescue, hostage recovery, hotspot detection for fires, and more.
The team used an Overwatch TK-9 multispectral sensor, which they integrated in one day, before swapping it out for a signals intelligence (SIGINT) payload to the same timescale.
‘That allowed us to work with the broader ecosystem of Firebird capability and prove out specific mission capabilities with the aircraft in the manned configuration,’ Haun explained.
In August, the aircraft self-deployed from Mojave to Northrop Grumman’s new Grand Sky facility near Grand Forks, North Dakota.
The company then performed more than 70 hours of flights in UAV mode in 7 days, including night-time operations. Firebird flew for more than 36 hours in a single 38-hour period, with the first leg alone stretching to more than 25 hours.
This test involved wide-area infrastructure monitoring, agriculture monitoring, flood plain mapping, a law enforcement simulation, pipeline surveillance and more. It marked the first ground-based sense and avoid operation for the aircraft, and the first aircraft operations at the Northrop Grumman Grand Sky Facility. The test used the same sensors as those demonstrated at Mojave, but also included an additional electro-optical (EO) payload.
The demonstrations highlighted Firebird’s versatility, said Haun, both in day-to-day operations and in the sheer range of markets it supports. The aircraft’s flexibility means it can even work in different sectors in the same day, thanks to the swappable payloads.
The company has big ambitions for the coming years, he said, and is increasingly focused on displaying the system’s applicability in the maritime markets – both military and commercial – and in cold weather operations.
More broadly, Northrop Grumman sees a host of opportunities for Firebird outside its domestic US market, Haun added, with the company keen to expand into a number of regions around the world.
He said the affordability, endurance and flexibility that Firebird brings ‘puts it in the right place for a lot of applications in that global market’.