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Northrop Grumman Unveils Latest Spy Plane

About a week ago I noticed a post over at The DEW Line talking about the appearance of a strange looking new aircraft in the vicinity of Beale Air Force Base, Calif. The plane looked, at first, like a new class of UAV. The fact that it was operating close to the home of the service's U-2 and RQ-4 Global Hawk spy planes backed up this theory. It turns out the airplane is Northrop Grumman's latest spy plane, the Firebird. The optionally-manned plane consists of a Scaled Composites-built airframe carrying everything from high-def video cameras and radars to electronic eavesdropping gear, according to a Northrop announcement.

The spy systems can be operated all at once or swapped out depending on mission needs.

From the announcement:

Firebird's universal interface is similar to plugging a memory stick into a personal computer that is automatically recognized without needing to load additional software.

"Not only have we increased the number of ISR sensors working simultaneously in an aircraft of this size, but we can also incorporate various sensors that complement each other – greatly enhancing Firebird's information-gathering value for warfighters," said Rick Crooks, Northrop Grumman's Firebird program manager. "Firebird is an adaptable system that makes it highly affordable because of the number of different missions it can accomplish during a single flight. It's a real game changer."

Now, the real question is, what's it's role in the market? The relatively slow, prop-driven plane will pretty vulnerable to all sorts of threats meaning it's best suited for use in places where the U.S. controls the airspace such as Afghanistan. Northrop's new plane resembles a beefed up, purpose-built version of MC-12 Liberty ISR plane flown by the U.S. Air Force in what can almost be described as a manned-UAV role in Iraq and Afghanistan. Demand for this type of aircraft that can carry a ton of sensors while staying aloft for hours is certainly growing around the globe. The Firebird can carry more than 1,200-pounds of payload and stay aloft for as long as 40 hours. Keeping the manned-option gives it some flexibility to be used in situations where having a pilot on scene is required. If Northrop can keep costs down, who knows, we may see the orders rolling in. The bird is set to fly in Joint Forces Command's Empire Challenge exercise later this month. We'll see how well it does there.
 
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