The two-seat Firebird is therefore also being positioned as a “replacement for the aging, inefficient and unsustainable fleet of special-mission aircraft,” says Northrop. “Some of them are looking at asymmetric warfare situations where aircraft like the [Hawker Beechcraft] King Air or Cessna Caravan do not have the endurance, or the versatility,” says Madigan.
“We'd like to hit all parts of the life cycle, and make it very reasonable to operate this capability. We're aiming at $10 million per aircraft with flight avionics and a basic sensor,” he adds.
The price target is exclusive of the ground station that has been developed to operate with the Firebird. In addition to the basic capability of a maximum unpiloted endurance of 24-40 hr., depending on payload and engine, the Firebird offers a “versatile display and a big payload bay.” The booms and wings offer “a lot of surface to do things with,” says Madigan. Without naming the first user, he adds that the initial production rate is pegged at two per year during the next five years.
In early 2009, less than two years after Northrop bought out all the remaining shares in Scaled Composites, the company asked: “What if we designed it as a UAV from the start but then made it optionally piloted?
“It was drawn on a napkin and 12 months to that day later, they flew it on Feb 9, 2010,” recalls Madigan.
Although the obvious target was the virtually uncontested medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) market enjoyed by General Atomics with the Predator and its follow-on Reaper and Gray Eagle, the Firebird is now evolving to compete across a variety of fronts.
The concept received key exposure at the 2011 Empire Challenge, the final interoperability and intelligence-sharing exercise run before the U.S. Joint Forces Command was disbanded.
“At Empire Challenge everybody saw us out there. Before that we kind of kept it quiet,” says Madigan. “In all, we have flown 12 different payloads and at Empire Challenge we flew four payloads that we never tested before. These included electro-optic/infra- red (EO/IR) sensors, radar and a communications relay. One of the things people were amazed with was we set up an impromptu Droid cell phone network from the air,” he adds.
Although Firebird's presence at the exercise was sponsored by the U.S. Army, other potentially more immediate customers at the event included U.S. Special Operations Command. Northrop previously said the command was interested in Firebird, but Madigan says only: “We competed for an undisclosed customer and we won, and they have certain requirements, including a two-seat production-standard vehicle.