Optionally Manned Firebird Rapidly Matures Ahead Of International Debut This Summer

With three aircraft now in testing, Northrop Grumman looks toward the international market and new payload partners to make Firebird soar. 

Northrop Grumman

The War Zone recently had the pleasure of chatting with Brian Chappel, the head of Autonomous Systems over at Northrop Grumman, about a program we have followed closely since before it was even officially disclosed—the Firebird optionally manned medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) surveillance aircraft. Firebird has a real shot at revolutionizing how some aerial surveillance is done and who has access to such capabilities. Now, as Firebird wades into the back half of its flight test program, we got an update as to how the unique aircraft is progressing and what's next for the ambitious program overall. 

First off, make sure to read our in-depth exposé on Firebird from December 2018 to get up to speed on its fascinating lineage and how it intends to upturn the aerial surveillance marketplace. Fast forward nearly five months and there are now three Firebird aircraft undergoing testing. Combined, they have amassed hundreds of hours of flight time not just in the manned configuration, but also in the unmanned configuration. 

The ability to rapidly transition the plane from manned to unmanned mode is at the heart of the Firebird concept. It can fly beyond line-of-sight, very long duration missions via a satellite data-link that gets installed where the cockpit is otherwise situated in just a matter of a couple of hours.

With the flight test program approaching its conclusion, Chappel and the Firebird team are looking outward to expand the aircraft's horizons, both in terms of business capture and mission sets. Firebird is sure to be a crowd favorite when it flies to the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in the United Kingdom this summer. This will be the first major aerospace exhibition for Firebird and it will allow for direct exchanges with potential customers about the plane's immense flexibility and what that means for their unique needs and goals. 

Chappel described the thinking behind Firebird's presence at RIAT to us as such:

"This summer we will take one of the aircraft to RIAT... You might ask why we aren't going to Paris? That's an awfully big show and we find that at RIAT we can have a much more intimate experience. That connects with another aspect of what's new. There's a lot of international interest. We will be highlighting Firebird and giving some walkarounds and in-depth discussions with potential international customers at RIAT in a way that sometimes is kind of difficult in Paris."

Firebird can be offered to customers in multiple forms. Buying the plane outright is remarkably inexpensive considering it is a purpose built, long-endurance surveillance platform that has an optionally manned capability baked-in. Chappel noted that the aircraft itself will sell for "well under" $10M apiece. The number goes up when you add the unmanned option and different sensor packages. The plane can fly with as many as five sensor systems installed on it at one time and that number could grow in the future. Roughly two dozen payloads have already been flown during tests.

Firebird has a huge payload bay as well as three hardpoints to mount pretty much anything one can imagine. And this is the other primary goal of the Firebird team going forward, to bring in as many new sub-systems to be paired with the airframe as possible. 

Northrop Grumman

Firebird in unmanned mode. 

The aircraft's avionics and mission systems are entirely open architecture and were designed to make integrating new payloads, and the software needed to operate them, as cheap and fast as possible. This is a big selling point for foreign buyers as they can integrate their own sensor systems onto Firebird and may be able to sell those sensors to other users of the aircraft. In fact, when it comes to offsets, Brian Chappel made it clear that there is nothing especially challenging when it comes to building Firebird's airframe—it uses simple manufacturing processes. So, local production is indeed a possibility for foreign customers that also see the plane's unique potential. 

Chappel describes this strategy in depth:

"I would say that none of the technology is exquisite, but the integration and how it all comes together to create such a broad set of capabilities is exquisite. And that's what enables you to do all of it at less than exquisite pricing... The manufacturing approach is very similar in that regard. It does not require extensive or exquisite tooling or expertise and one of the approaches we are finding that is getting traction internationally is the ability to stand up alternate production sites. It is really inexpensive to be able to do that. 

To the extent that other parties or governments are interested in the capability, but also want to begin developing a capability to produce this type or class of aircraft, we're fine with doing that. We are absolutely looking at and examining a regional manufacturing approach to be able to do that."

Although Northrop Grumman is still somewhat cryptic as to who is already signed on to buy Firebird airframes, they can say that it has already been sold to the U.S. Government and multiple aircraft are being built for undisclosed units that will put the plane to work. We don't know for sure if this the U.S. military alone, or if federal agencies are also involved, but a mix of both is certainly possible. Frankly, everyone from the Department of State Air Wing to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol could make great use of Firebird. 

One of the coolest things about Firebird is that it can self-deploy anywhere in the world with a pilot at its controls and even work out of small, rough airfields. Once forward deployed, it can then be converted into unmanned configuration and fly missions lasting over 30 hours. It single six-cylinder Lycoming TEO-540 engine runs on avgas and can be supported pretty much anywhere in the world. It's also far less expensive to operate and overhaul than a turbine engine. All this means that Firebird can deploy with a tiny footprint pretty much anywhere it needs to be and work very efficiently once there. 

Being able to tailor payloads to the operating environment and mission is one thing, but being able to literally tailor the aircraft's operational concept is entirely something else altogether. Some operations and operating areas benefit from or even necessitate a human in the cockpit, while others largely benefit from long-duration missions run from a ground station. Being able to provide both in one airframe is revolutionary, at least in terms of a purpose-built aircraft being sold and sustained by an American aerospace-defense prime contractor. 

Chappel describes Firebird's unique flexibility:

"You're manned with zero, one, or two pilots, depending upon your mission. Particularly in Australia, the way I highlighted it was it's a big continent, lots of ocean all around it. Interesting missions to do in just about any direction you can point. You might be doing maritime surveillance or counter-illegal fishing or people smuggling operations up in the north or northwest approaches to Australia, you would be doing that unmanned, you want that long patrol capability. But then some emergency in the interior or the outback occurs—they had some pretty significant flooding not too long ago, and of course, they have a history of terrible wildfires—you come back from a mission and reconfigure very quickly to your manned configuration. If you have the need to land somewhere in an austere environment to let a doctor off or let an agent out, you have the ability to do that, and just a few hours ago you were flying unmanned long-duration over the ocean."

Also, customers can buy the aircraft in its basic configuration and slowly add more capabilities as they see fit. Its standard manned format and its basic sensor load can be upgraded later on with an unmanned configuration option and more diverse and advanced sensor systems. 

Matt Hartman/Shorealonefilms.com

Firebird in manned configuration. It can be flow by one or two pilots and uses open architecture Garmin 3000 avionics. 

In addition, Chappel told us that for users that need the Firebird somewhere around the globe quick, it can be easily broken down and flown on a transport. Its modular carbon fiber design made this nearly a default capability. 

Northrop Grumman has paired with Tenax Aerospace to offer Firebird to potential customers that may not be able to afford the whole aircraft up front, or who just want to see how it fits their needs without spending millions of dollars. Providing such a powerful information, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability 'by the glass' instead of 'by the bottle' should allow MALE capability to migrate to a customer base that never was able to access it before. In the end, this means more Firebirds flying around the globe and it could be a great gateway to selling airframes to customers that can actually experience the value proposition that the aircraft provides before plunking down the funds to buy their own planes and payloads. 

By offering a non-purchase option, governments can buy Firebird time and spread it across multiple agencies instead of just one. Once again, this can make customers out of entities that never really realized they had a need for this type of aircraft and its diverse payload ecosystem before.

Building out that ecosystem with the maximum variety of sensors and systems that can plug and play on Firebird is a major goal of the program. Electro-optical and infrared sensors, radars, electronic surveillance systems, communications intelligence gathering systems, and other traditional payloads are key to the program. Yet other applications exist, as well, such as communications relay payloads and those that are specifically tuned for missions like geological surveying, marine wildlife tracking, disaster response, forest fire mapping, atmospheric sampling, and other environmental monitoring needs. These are all areas where Firebird could really soar. So, bringing new payload partners into the Firebird program will only provide more solutions to a broader customers base. 

As for the possibility of putting air-to-ground weaponry on an aircraft that can fly for 30 plus hours over the battlefield and is loaded with powerful sensors, Chappel said it is still a possibility, but no work is being done on it at this time. The aircraft is primarily seen as a surveillance platform, so that really isn't surprising, but with guided munitions becoming ever smaller and more easily integrated onto diverse airframes, one can only imagine that Firebird could be one heck of a persistent air-to-ground platform, at least as a secondary duty to its surveillance role. 

Northrop Grumman

Firebird landing at Montgomery Field in San Diego. 

As for how big the market may be for Firebird, Chappel made it clear that they are starting out small in hopes of building a big foundation for future success. He sees demand for dozens of Firebirds in the near term, with potentially several hundreds as the program advances and as potential customers, some of which may have discreet manned and unmanned aircraft doing similar missions today, see just how economical and flexible Firebird can be.  

One hurdle to Firebird's export success could be the limitations the U.S. government has historically put on exporting higher-end unmanned technologies. But this is changing and Chappel doesn't see it being a major issue going forward:

"From an export policy standpoint, people will focus on the unmanned part of it, and of course we have to work through the policy and MTCR [Missile Technology Control Regime] types of issues, but the environment on that is very, very encouraging. We are getting a lot of encouragement, not just for Firebird, but for a number of our systems and doing it in a thoughtful way with U.S. Government to make sure that good decisions are made, but opportunities are able to be pursued. That wasn't always the case if you go back a few years, but that environment has shifted and is really giving us great encouragement about opportunities for systems like Firebird internationally."

Northrop Grumman

Although it isn't the most glamorous aircraft program underway today, I believe Firebird is one of the most pivotal. If Northrop Grumman and their partners deliver a MALE optionally manned capability for the dollar figures they are proposing and with the degree of flexibility and adaptability that the plane was designed for, it could heavily impact the manned and unmanned ISR platform marketplace in ways that aren't even predictable at this time. 

All told, Firebird can be something different to each of its customers, and that means there should be a very big tent, or should I say hangar, full of potential users that could leverage its unique capabilities. 

We will continue to keep you posted as Firebird marches towards its grand arrival on the world stage at RIAT this summer.

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com