Northrop Grumman unveiled a new optionally piloted vehicle in the medium-altitude, long-endurance (Male) class, which is currently dominated by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems with its Predator/Reaper series. The Firebird will fly in piloted and multisensor configuration later this month at Empire Challenge 2011, a military intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) exercise hosted by the U.S. Joint Forces Command at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Reportedly the Firebird demonstration is sponsored by the Army, which has planned to order a large number of MQ-1C Grey Eagles, the extended range, multipurpose Predator upgrade.
The Air Force has a pending requirement, known as MQ-X, to succeed its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aircraft. But this is portrayed as a low-observable jet vehicle, whereas the Firebird is a twin-tail-boom, pusher-prop aircraft powered by a Lycoming TE-450 piston engine. Its max takeoff weight is 5,000 pounds, with an internal and external payload capacity of 1,240 pounds. Endurance is 24 to 40 hours depending on configuration, with altitude ceiling of 30,000 feet. The air vehicle was designed and built by Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif. First flight occurred “just 12 months after the initial concept discussions,” said Northrop Grumman.
The internal payload bay can operate up to four ISR and communications payloads simultaneously through a “universal interface.” The sensor portfolio includes an unspecified radar with synthetic aperture; ground moving target indicator and dismounted moving target indicator modes; and an EO/IR turret and communications intelligence system. Army MQ-1C Grey Eagles deployed to Afghanistan are equipped with Northrop Grumman’s StarLite miniaturized active electronically scanned array radar.
While early media reports portrayed the Firebird as a competitor shot across the bow from Northrop Grumman to General Atomics, L-3 Unmanned Systems, of Carrollton, Texas, has introduced a similar Male platform. L-3’s Mobius is an optionally piloted, pusher-prop aircraft with a max takeoff weight of 3,000 pounds and 1,000-pound payload capacity. An L-3 spokeswoman said Mobius “has been demonstrated to a number of potential customers” since its public debut at NAS Patuxent River, Md., in August 2009.