Firebird Deliveries Imminent as the OPV Makes European Debut

 - July 17, 2019, 9:34 AM
Designed by Scaled Composites at Mojave, California, the Northrop Grumman Firebird has undergone a number of design changes since the demonstrator vehicle first flew in February 2010. (photo: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman’s Firebird optionally-piloted vehicle (OPV) is due to be delivered to its first government customers imminently, but in parallel, the company is tying in new customer types for the aircraft in the commercial market, while promoting the benefits of a dual-configuration system to a number of other potential customers.

Undisclosed government customers are “on the cusp” of receiving the Firebird, representing a transition from development to becoming operational, while the company also announced that it has signed agreements with commercial operators Tenax Aerospace and Grand Sky for the rights to purchase the aircraft. Grand Sky is a commercial UAV research and development park based in North Dakota—Northrop has a facility at the site—while Tenax provides special-mission aircraft and other services to the U.S. government and commercial customers.

Brian Chappel, vice-president of autonomous systems at Northrop Grumman, told AIN that the flexibility and cost point of Firebird lends itself to the commercial market, and the fact that it is reconfigurable means that the manned and unmanned elements can be selected depending on the respective missions.

This also helps appease concerns regarding the use of unmanned systems in national airspace. It further represents an appetite for increased capability in the commercial market, as operators realize the benefits of using larger, more sophisticated systems as opposed to the smaller multi-rotor systems often associated with commercial operations. Additionally, a commercial cockpit, Lycoming engine, and other off-the-shelf features mean it is not a purely military-spec system, so it lends itself to the commercial market. 

“This is a system that has been around for a long time, but it is a system that is now crossing over from production to delivery,” Chappel explained. “We really are entering into a much more interesting era for these systems.”

Firebird takes four hours to switch configurations, and Chappel said that some 24 different sensors—including signals intelligence, EO/IR and communications payloads—have been demonstrated on the vehicle. “A lot of the magic within Firebird is in the architecture,” he said. “It is not exotic in terms of being made of exquisite materials, but it is an exquisite design. This is not just another MALE [medium altitude long endurance] aircraft; this is something unique and different.”

Firebird is due to make its European debut when it arrives at the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford in the UK from July 19, an indication that Northrop Grumman is exploring new markets for the Firebird program, a system that was introduced some nine years ago. Chappel said that in seeking new customers for Firebird, Northrop is open to transferring elements of the assembly and testing of the aircraft to partners in order to benefit their respective industrial agendas.

“This type of system lends itself to any company or country with intentions to become capable of developing it and then to be able to sell it themselves,” Chappel added. Potential regions that the company is pitching to include Europe, the Far East, Middle East, and Australia.