The Firebird platform, designed by Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites subsidiary, offers a large internal payload bay and an ability to operate multiple intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and communications payloads simultaneously through a universal interface. “Military users will also find it much easier to exploit intelligence data from Firebird because the information is put into a single tool, allowing them to easily make decisions,” said Rick Crooks, Northrop Grumman’s Firebird program manager “The internal payload bay also does away with the need to carry external pods to house sensor payloads that can cause drag and affect how long the aircraft can stay in the air.”
The first aircraft is powered by a Lycoming TEP-540 engine, but future models could also be powered by heavy-fuel engines, designed to work with standard Army fuel. In addition to the large payload bay, FireBird has two underwing hardpoints for carrying external pods or weapons.
“Firebird is an adaptable system that makes it highly affordable because of the number of different missions it can accomplish during a single flight. It’s a real game changer” said Crooks. Firebird’s universal interface enables ‘plug and play’ integration of payloads, with the system automatically recognized new modules, without needing to load additional software. The architecture also enables employment of multiple payloads of the same type. In a flight demonstration held in December 2010 the FireBird flew with four FMV payloads, enabling multiple users to task the UAV sensors independently and simultaneously at three different locations. “Not only have we increased the number of ISR sensors working simultaneously in an aircraft of this size, but we can also incorporate various sensors that complement each other – greatly enhancing Firebird’s information-gathering value for warfighters” Crooks explains. The new open architecture employed on the FireBird for the first time is expected to migrate to other platforms, and is positioned as a candidate for Northrop’s entry into future Navy and Air Force UAV programs, including Uclass and MQ-X.