Northrop Grumman, Boeing UAV programs continue expansion

Northrop Grumman Corp. unveiled a new medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) aerial system, called Firebird, built by subsidiary Scaled Composites.

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Northrop Grumman Corp. (San Diego, Calif.) on May 9 unveiled a new medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) aerial system, called Firebird, built by subsidiary Scaled Composites (Mojave, Calif.). Firebird is designed for manned or unmanned flight and can be quickly modified for either option, says the company. Scaled Composites designed, built and tested the composite aircraft. Notably, its first flight took place just 12 months after the initial concept discussions.

The new aircraft has a 65-ft/19.8m wingspan, is 34 ft/10.2m long and has a gross takeoff weight of 5,000 lb/2,268 kg. Its distinctive twin-boom tail, a characteristic Scaled design, allows up to four different types of sensor payloads to be carried, say published reports. “We’ve harnessed the innovative techniques of Northrop Grumman and Scaled Composites to deliver an unprecedented information-gathering capability,” said Paul Meyer, vice-president and general manager of advanced programs and technology for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Firebird addresses future budgetary constraints by combining the best of our piloted and unmanned ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] systems into a single solution ready for a variety of ISR missions.”

Firebird’s universal interface is similar to plugging a memory stick in to a personal computer in that it is automatically recognized without needing to load additional software, adds Meyer. The option for manned flight is desirable because unmanned aircraft within the U.S. airspace are still problematic, due to pending FAA rules.
Firebird is set for an operational demonstration in an optionally piloted configuration from May 23 through June 3, 2011, during Empire Challenge 2011, a military exercise run by U.S. Joint Forces Command.

Northrop Grumman announced on April 12 that its MQ-8B Fire Scout vertical-takeoff-and-landing, tactical unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) marked a new single-day flight record of 18 hours. U.S. Navy operators achieved the record using a single aircraft in a series of endurance flights on Feb. 25 from the USS Halyburton. The composites-intensive Fire Scout is providing ISR data to support antipiracy missions while deployed on the ship within the Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

The Boeing Co. (St. Louis, Mo.) successfully flew its Phantom Ray unmanned aircraft system (UAS) for the first time on April 27 at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. The 17-minute flight took place following a series of high-speed taxi tests in March that validated the craft’s systems. Phantom Ray flew to 7,500 ft/2,286m and reached a speed of 178 knots. With a 50-ft/15.2m wingspan and measuring 36 ft/11m long, Phantom Ray was designed and developed by Boeing Phantom Works based on a prototype the company had originally created less than a decade ago for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)/U.S. Air Force/U.S. Navy Joint Unmanned Combat Air System (J-UCAS) program.

The craft is likely to be one of several, including Northrop Grumman’s X-47B and others developed by competing companies, to vie for a role in the U.S. Navy’s proposed Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. The upcoming competition, if it survives defense budget cuts, would eventually culminate in an aircraft carrier-based squadron of unmanned stealthy UAS intended for round-the-clock ISR duty.