After decades of enjoying a virtually uncontested lead in the medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial systems (UAS) market, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems may finally be facing some competition.

Northrop Grumman is unveiling its secretly developed Firebird aircraft, which is designed to capture some of General Atomics' future market share, during the Pentagon's Empire Challenge multinational intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) exercise this month. Though this will be the public's first glimpse, defense officials have been quietly briefed on the concept for months.

The U.S. medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAS market is large, with General Atomics earning hundreds of millions of dollar's of work annually, previously for the Predator and now—with Predator out of production—for the Air Force Reaper and Army Gray Eagle. “That was a target,” says Paul Meyer, director of Northrop Grumman's Advanced Technology and Concepts division, referring to the MALE market. “That is the one that is unopposed today [but] when we looked at it, we needed to do something different.”

Firebird is an optionally piloted vehicle built by Northrop Grumman's Scaled Composites in 12 months. First flown in February 2010, Firebird is the first publicly unveiled aircraft product of Meyer's organization, which was formed about two years ago. Previously, Northrop had advanced concepts experts at each company location. “It was an adjunct arm of the operating business,” Meyer says. Now, forward-looking design work is a stand-alone function headquartered in Redondo Beach, Calif.

The twin-boom, Bronco tail design can carry up to four sensor payloads simultaneously and Firebird's information architecture was crafted to offer users in disparate locations direct access to those sensors. The forward-swept wings, combined with other aircraft attributes, are designed for loitering and collecting intelligence and they also offer the ability to climb and dash to another target area if needed, company officials say. The aircraft is designed to fly at about 200 kt.

The heart of Firebird, however, is not the aircraft but the information technology architecture, says Rick Crooks, director of special programs at the company's advanced concepts division. The aircraft and sensor command-and-control systems are rooted in 10 years of work to develop an open architecture amenable to quick payload switches, he says.

The optionally piloted design choice distinguishes Firebird from the General Atomics (GA) UAS and other aircraft. Though there is some interest in optionally piloted vehicles from the Pentagon—especially the Army—it is unlikely Firebird would ever eclipse Reaper in order numbers. “An optionally piloted [design] removes GA from the market,” says an industry official in the unmanned arena who is not affiliated with either company. One defense official notes that, at best, Firebird could snag 10-20% of the market now exclusively consumed by General Atomics' designs. “Yes, it is an uphill battle. However, [Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton] Carter has made a demand for competition. Our friends down south have been in this market with no competition for 15 years,” Meyer says, referring to General Aromics. “The intent is to make sure we are not a stalking-horse. “We are hoping this exposure [at Empire Challenge] will intrigue someone to look at their acquisition plans and reconsider.”

The design, which has an endurance of 40 hr., depending on the payload and mission, could also provide an alternative to the Pentagon's growing fleets of manned HawkerBeechcraft King Air 350 and 350ERs. The Air Force has purchased 37 MC-12W Project Liberty aircraft, which are modified to carry various intelligence payloads. And the Army also has a diverse fleet of similar aircraft. Meyer suggests the goal for Northrop Grumman was to design a basic truck that would allow for customers to focus spending on sensors. Typical mission duration for the King Airs operating in the field today is 4-6 hr.

The Army has sponsored Firebird in the Empire Challenge experiment.

Though there is some interest in the Pentagon, there is a window of time in which optionally piloted vehicles will be most attractive to U.S. customers. The ability to fly cross-country in a manned configuration is desirable in large part owing to the failure of the Pentagon and FAA to craft rules on flying unmanned vehicles in commercial air space. This problem does not exist in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the military owns the skies—and where Predator, Reaper and Global Hawk UAS are prevalent. But as long as interagency wrangling on the issue persists—and many experts say it will—optionally piloted vehicles could allow the military the flexibility of unmanned operations with the ease of transiting using standard rules for manned aviation. This feature could be especially useful when the system is required to operate in—or transit through—densely populated air space, such as in Europe.

Frank Pace, president of General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, acknowledges there is a potential niche for optionally piloted vehicles in the MALE market because the aircraft can be quickly transported and configured for operations. Northrop Grumman refers to this as being “self-deployable.” Other systems, such as Predator and Reaper, are broken down and reassembled once they arrive on station.

“There might be some niche things available,” Pace notes, commenting on the MALE market. “But in terms of the next major procurement, Navy Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike System and [Air Force] MQ-X are really the only ones on the horizon.” Having secured his company's place in the MALE arena, Pace says he is focused on the Avenger design for upcoming competitions.

Meanwhile, Northrop could hope to create some business with Firebird until those procurements are under way—with Uclass expected to begin before a next-generation Reaper replacement procurement. “We are not content with just being the Global Hawk and Fire Scout contractor,” Meyer says, referring to existing UAS programs at Northrop.

Some interest in Firebird has been generated in part because the aircraft was privately showcased to a group of defense officials in October 2010 in Sacramento, Calif. Crooks says that event was the first “multi-int” demonstration—employment of three sensors simultaneously—for Firebird. They included high-definition full-motion video (FMV), electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR), and synthetic aperture radar. These three payloads were integrated for the first time on the aircraft within 20 days, Crooks says.

During a December flight trial, two separate FMV sensors were integrated onto the aircraft within five days. This demonstrated partial wide area surveillance. Crooks says there are plans to eventually fly four FMV sensors simultaneously for a wide-field-of-view intelligence-collection capability.

This month, Northrop intends to showcase for the first time the use of up to four payloads simultaneously and rapidly integrated onto the aircraft during Empire Challenge, which runs May 23-June 3. They are slated to include a mix of electronic support/direction finding, EO/IR (including short- and mid-wave infrared and high-definition FMV), radar and a communications relay. The goal is to demonstrate multiple missions during the same sortie (intelligence collection and communications relay), land the aircraft, reconfigure the sensor suite and launch within an hour. The sensors will be controlled by three geographically distinct users.

Empire Challenge is hosted by the U.S. Joint Forces Command, and it is designed to demonstrate near-term capabilities that can be rapidly deployed. The aircraft will fly out of Fort Huachuca, Ariz., for the exercise.

Northrop Grumman designed and built Firebird to be operationally ready; it is not considered a prototype, Crooks says. Plans for a second vehicle are nascent, though under way. Company officials say Firebird is considered to be the first of a potential family of vehicles all designed around the open architecture. This architecture is also a candidate for Northrop's entry into Uclass and, eventually, MQ-X.

Though the first Firebird carries a general aviation Lycoming TEP-540 engine, Northrop is examining alternatives. A heavy-fuel engine designed to work using the same fuel Army officials pump into trucks is a priority, and a search is ongoing for candidates.

The aircraft design also has two hard points, one on each wing, and a station on the centerline suitable for carrying weapons in the future. A radar has previously been tested on the centerline station.

Though the first aircraft came from Scaled Composites, the ultimate goal is to transfer production to an existing facility—likely Palmdale, Calif., or Moss Point, Miss.—if orders are received, Meyer says.

To date, Firebird has been flown with a pilot in the cockpit. Even in the unmanned mode, a test pilot has been onboard.