Northrop Grumman is planning to publicly unveil its secret Firebird aircraft later this month at the Pentagon’s Empire Challenge, an exercise designed to demonstrate intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies that can be fielded quickly.

Despite mature work in the unmanned rotorcraft, airship and high-altitude UAS markets, company officials have remained unsatisfied at the dominance of General Atomics in the medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAS market with their Predator, Reaper and Gray Eagle designs.

“That was a target,” says Paul Meyer, director of the Advanced Technology and Concepts division, who spoke exclusively with Aviation Week about the new aircraft. “That is the one that is unopposed today [but] when we looked at it, we needed to do something different.”

Thus, Firebird is an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV); it was secretly built by Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites in 12 months. The aircraft, first flown in February 2010, was showcased last October in a private demonstration for Pentagon officials near Sacramento, Calif. Though unlikely to eclipse Predator or Reaper in order numbers, Northrop officials see an opportunity for a niche market with the OPV while the Pentagon and FAA continue to wrangle over rules for flying UAS in open airspace.

The twin-boomed, Bronco tail design – so named because it was used for the OV-10 “Bronco” -- was chosen to carry up to four payloads simultaneously, including sensors and communications equipment, and operate up to 40 hrs. in unmanned mode.

Firebird’s information architecture was crafted to offer users in various locations direct access to the payloads, offering service to multiple ground users at once, says Rick Crooks, director of special programs at Northrop’s advanced technology division. The aircraft is designed to fly at about 200 kts.

During Empire Challenge, which takes place May 23-June 3, Northrop plans to showcase the use of up to four payloads – including high-definition full-motion video, electro-optical/infrared sensors, electronic support/direction finding and a communications relay -- simultaneously on Firebird. The company plans to land, reconfigure the sensor payload and launch a new sortie within an hour.

Empire Challenge takes place in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Though hosted by the now soon-to-be defunct U.S. Joint Forces Command, the Army is sponsoring the Firebird entry for the trials.

[Editor’s note: For an in-depth exclusive look at the Firebird, read Aviation Week & Space Technology’s cover story May 9.]