The Flexibility of Firebird
From Manned to Unmanned
By Albert McKeon
Look in the sky! It’s a plane. No, wait — it’s not just any plane. It’s Firebird, a sophisticated jack-of-all-trades unmanned aircraft that can also fly with pilots and carry all kinds of payloads for all sorts of missions.
Today’s technology is advancing the development of fast, smart, all-purpose products — things that didn’t seem possible even a decade ago — and the creation of Firebird in just the past five years speaks to the moment.
“It can be used for a wide range of missions,” said Eric Goss, director and chief engineer of the Firebird program at Northrop Grumman. “Search and rescue, firefighting, intelligence gathering, surveillance and reconnaissance, agricultural applications, maritime monitoring and more. It’s all about flexibility.”
Open Architecture Opens Opportunities
Rather than making an airplane that would satisfy the needs of a limited number of customers, Northrop Grumman leveraged open-architecture concepts to build a versatile aircraft. It can accommodate the varying intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions of many types of industries, including the military, law enforcement, energy companies and disaster relief agencies. And in far less time than it takes commercial airline passengers to eat an airport meal between connecting flights, Firebird can switch from a manned configuration to autonomous operations.
Firebird’s very low cost per flight hour makes it attractive to persistent operations. Customers have options; either they can purchase an aircraft from Northrop Grumman to perform their missions or to seek out contractors who have purchased a Firebird who offer contracted ISR services, Goss said. In this way, it’s well suited for a time in which organizations seek greater flexibility with costs but still expect high performance and high quality data products.
Built for the Long Haul
Despite the name, Firebird isn’t particularly fast. Its calling card is endurance.
“It has very long legs,” Goss said of its ability to travel up to 3,000 nautical miles one way. When flying as an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), it can stay in the air for up to 30 hours; with a pilot on board, a flight can last as long as 19 hours. A typical manned ISR platform, especially one that carries the weight of a crew, usually has to land about every four to six hours to refuel, and carries a large operational cost, he said. But Firebird gives its users “a lot of time on target” to carry out missions in the air and low operational cost in both manned and unmanned configurations. Its lengthy flight time in UAV mode also eliminates the possibility of pilot fatigue of manned flight.
The primary goal that Goss and his colleagues had five years ago was to create an affordable airplane that can fly autonomously or under the control of a pilot, with an ability to quickly convert to either modes, while simplifying and decreasing integration time for payloads and sensors, all without sacrificing quality.
As Goss explained, often a known manned aircraft is taken and converted to an unmanned configuration, although functional, this typically doesn’t transition well since manned aircraft missions are focused on speed and carriage of people versus long endurance and persistence. Engineers took a different approach to designing Firebird to be able to execute the unique capabilities of the plane.
Firebird utilized the mainstream FAA design standards and regulations for their design to account for the manned elements inherent in the design and the proven aircraft design history and test and evaluation structure with the use of these standards. This supports all types of organizations use since the FAA regulations are known worldwide.
From Manned to Unmanned Aircraft in Little Time
Firebird’s makeup also aims for commonalty with its open architecture. It allows for the plug and play of components to accommodate the varying missions of the varied agencies and organizations that will use the aircraft. This lets customers install a new payload in as little as one day, or even swap payloads in 30 minutes.
To switch from a manned to unmanned flight, crews on the ground can quickly remove the canopy, instrument panel, control sticks, and heating and cooling panels using basic mechanic tools.
“It’s built for a rapid transition and mission flexibility,” Goss said. “So, when you take all manned equipment out, you can then put on a satellite dish for command and control and a modem. Now, you have a UAV in less than 2 hours. And you can easily add multiple payloads to have a true multi-intelligent system based on what mission you need to fly.”
With a large sensor bay, Firebird can monitor and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance on military targets, pipelines, farms, disaster scenes, fires and just about any venue that needs eyes from above.
“A big selling point is its transportability and ability to deploy to locations,” Goss said. “You can have a pilot fly the aircraft to its assignment point, convert it to an unmanned aircraft and then within two hours begin an operation for 30 hours.”
Firebird’s Overseers Want It to Leave the Nest
Jo Esparza, aircraft maintenance manager at Northrop Grumman’s Fox Airfield and Mojave Air and Spaceport in California, is the crew chief of Firebird. He works on all types of aircraft but can’t help but admire what he and his colleagues accomplished with the craftsmanship and purpose of Firebird.
“Due to engineering and maintainer collaboration in the design phase, the Firebird aircraft are very easy to maintain,” Esparza said.
Northrop Grumman took Firebird out on a test ride in early 2021, flying nearly 9,000 miles around the U.S., with stops in Ohio, Maryland and Washington, D.C., as well as Miami, Tampa and Key West in Florida, to show future customers its many potential uses.
“To take an airplane that didn’t exist five years ago and fly it for the first time, that’s something,” Esparza said. “No one can say they helped build an airplane from the ground up, to testing, to ground demonstration, to sales and now to an introduction. To me, this is my baby. I am emotionally attached to Firebird. But like a mother bird, I’ve now got to let it fly.”