By Nigel Pittaway ǀ Melbourne | 22 April 2021
Northrop Grumman’s Firebird optionally-manned surveillance aircraft has recently concluded a demonstration tour of the US, which included a maritime surveillance mission off the Florida coast that was witnessed by US and foreign Special Forces representatives.
The aircraft was flown from Northrop Grumman’s facility in Mojave to Dayton, Ohio, for demonstrations to US Air Force personnel and thence to Washington DC for briefings with government and Department of Defense officials.
Following this, the Firebird was flown to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, for briefings with US Navy personnel and then to Florida, where it was presented to US Special Operations Command and later performed a flight demonstration of its maritime surveillance capabilities off Key West.
Northrop Grumman has already integrated around 25 different sensors on the Firebird platform, including Electro-Optic, Infra-Red (EO/IR) turrets, Overwatch Imaging TK-7 Fire Watch and TK-9 Earth Watch multi-spectral sensors, Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) payloads, and maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS). The company is also exploring two electronically-scanned maritime surveillance radars, in the form of Leonardo’s AN/ZPY-8 Osprey and Telephonics RDR-1700B+ multi-mode surveillance radars.
Firebird is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) air vehicle manufactured by Northrop Grumman subsidiary Scale Composites in Mojave, powered by a Lycoming piston engine and with a 30-hour endurance. Its design requirements include the ability to swap between manned and unmanned configuration in under four hours, but Northrop Grumman says it regularly achieves this in two hours, and with no special tooling. It has a mission payload of 1,700 pounds (771 kilograms), with individual payloads able to be switched in 30 minutes, allowing the aircraft to be rapidly re-configured for different mission sets.
We are seeking to find the right fit for what Firebird might mean for Australia and other nations in the region
The US manufacturer is hoping to attract interest from both military and government customers and contractors in the US and overseas and has previously responded to an Australian Border Force Request for Information (RFI) for a maritime surveillance capability.
“We continue to pursue many opportunities in the area. The Government of Australia has released a formal RFI and we have participated in replying to those type of requests,” Jon Haun, Northrop Grumman’s Autonomous Chief Strategist, told ADM last week. “We also continue to engage where we’re able to communicate the capability of Firebird, seeking to find the right fit for what Firebird might mean for Australia and other nations in the region.
Haun also revealed that Northrop Grumman has responded to an RFI for a similar maritime surveillance capability from the NZ Government.
In 2020, the company deployed the Firebird from Mojave to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to participate in a number of trials within the Northern Plains UAS test site and, on its way back to Mojave, it was able to assist the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) in support of firefighting efforts in northern California.
“It was really gratifying for the team to be able to participate, and we used the EO/IR and TK-9 sensors to be able to support Cal Fire,” Haun added. “It shows the flexibility of being able to support a bunch of different missions.”
And while the short to medium-term opportunities appear to be focussed on government agencies such as Border Force and the State Government emergency services here in Australia, ADM understands that at least one representative from Army’s Special Forces community was briefed on the Firebird's capabilities during the recent US tour.