For a corporation that is producing the USAF’s next-generation stealth bomber, plus the Global Hawk and other high-tech, high-altitude ISR platforms, it seems a bit strange that Northrop Grumman is now marketing a relatively low-tech, Medium-Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) aircraft. Without $$$$$ from the Pentagon for development.
But NG is convinced that its Firebird design for ISR offers some unique capabilities. These include optional piloting and interchangeable plug-and-play payloads, plus an endurance to match MALE UAVs like the MQ-9 Reaper. And, after all, it’s the sensors that really matter (see later).
The appearance of the Firebird at the recent Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in the UK marked a renewed sales push by NG. For the prototype Firebird (below, with SIGINT aerials) first flew over nine years ago. It was designed by the famous Scaled Composites company, which NG bought in 2007. Since then, NG has allowed this innovative prototyping shop based at Mojave, CA a sensible degree of autonomy.
A second Firebird flew at Mojave in 2012 with the cockpit redesigned to house a second pilot, and the wingspan increased from 65 to 72 feet. Then all went quiet until this year. NG evidently had no success persuading the USAF or US Army that the Firebird was a useful alternative to General Atomics’ proliferating series of UAVs.
The latest Firebird made its first flight in March 2018. Final assembly was by NG, not Scaled. Some more have been built. The wingspan is now over 79 feet, the MTOW 7,500lbs, the payload 1,700lbs and the ceiling 25,000 feet. In the unmanned configuration, the endurance can be over 30 hours.
NG says that conversion from manned to unmanned can be done the same day. Sensors can be swopped in 30 minutes, and up to five sensors can be carried in the payload bay, (below). It’s a true Open Missions Systems (OMS) bird, with no proprietary interfaces and databases. The ground station is designed by NG, and flight control is by keyboard, like the Global Hawk.
NG has been coy about sales, referring vaguely to the ubiquitous “US government customers”. But it has listed two commercial outfits in the US: Grand Sky and Tenax Aviation. Grand Sky is the business that developed and operates the UAS-dedicated aviation park next to Grand Forks AFB in North Dakota. NG was the first tenant at Grand Sky, which is presumably a new home for the Firebird.
Tenax provides special mission aircraft under contract to the US government. It has some heavy hitters on its board, including the former NSA and CIA director General Mike Hayden.
A few months ago, Tenax invested in Overwatch Imaging, a start-up company that has designed “an exciting new technology” according to Tenax. Overwatch has applied artificial intelligence (AI) to produce an imaging sensor that performs autonomous collection and analysis. I dare say it will soon be flying on the Firebird, if not already.
Diamond Aircraft of Austria is a key competitor in this market. It adapted the DA42 commercial twin for ISR and remote sensing missions some years ago, as the DA42 Multi-Purpose Platform (MPP) (below). The company claims to have sold more than 100 of them. Aurora Flight Sciences developed an optionally-piloted version in the US. Ironically, NG contracted Diamond to provide some sub-assemblies for the new Firebird prototype.
Diamond has been a regular exhibitor at aerospace shows. For this writer, it was always a pleasure to interview the company’s enthusiastic chairman Christian Dries, who founded Diamond more than 25 years ago. He proudly described sensors and satcom designed and produced in-house. Maybe not sophisticated, but certainly fit-for-purpose, he would say.
Those MPPs displayed in front of Diamond’s chalet with various sensors grafted onto their exteriors, looked a bit clumsy. Of course, the DA42 is not a clean-sheet design for ISR. But the company offers a “turnkey” solution that includes adaptable ground stations designed by Diamond’s own engineers.
Presumably, a Diamond is a low-cost acquisition, whereas the Firebird price tag ranges from under $10 million to near $20 million, depending on the sensor fit and whether you want manned only or with the unmanned option. The Firebird’s single 400hp Lycoming T540 piston engine should be economical, but Diamond claims that its latest DA42 version “burns fuel like a single”. The engines come from a sister company.
The redoubtable Mr Dries has now sold his companies to a Chinese investor. Northrop Grumman suggests that this could be a problem for Diamond customers that do sensitive ISR missions. But Diamond’s HQ, plus development and production, will remain in Austria. So we shall see.