Northrop Grumman [NOC] recently demonstrated its optionally-piloted Firebird multi-mission aircraft in series of unmanned evaluations that included one flight lasting longer than a day and operations with a ground-based sense and avoid radar that eliminated the need for a manned chase aircraft to observe flights.

During seven flights in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) mode at Grand Sky, N.D., the Firebird accumulated 70 hours of flight time, including day and night operations, Jon Haun, director of the Firebird product line and strategy for Northrop Grumman, said on Wednesday during an update for media held virtually via Zoom. The evaluations included 36 hours of flight-time during a 38- hour stretch in which the first flight lasted 25.6 hours, he said.

Flying without the need of a chase aircraft “sets the stage for longer term UAV operations for each of the customers that we’re looking to address,” Haun said.

During the flights, Haun said that Firebird performed wide area infrastructure monitoring of things like pipelines, precision agriculture, and a simulated law enforcement scenario. During one flight, the aircraft, equipped with an Overwatch Imaging TK-7 multispectral sensor, detected a wildfire, leading to local authorities being alerted, he said.

Northrop Grumman is marketing Firebird for the global security and civil markets, and touts is applicability to a broad number of missions that can be done affordably. Haun said the aircraft can do missions at 40 to 60 percent of the cost of other manned and unmanned aircraft performing similar missions.

Firebird features open architectures to adopt a large number of payloads, with new payloads able to be integrated in a single day. Payloads can also be swapped out quickly, allowing for multiple flights in a day for different missions. Haun said 25 payloads have been flown on Firebird so far.

In manned demonstration in the spring in Mojave, Calif., the aircraft conducted four days of flights covering 45-hours of flight time that included missions such as route clearance, mission overwatch, search and rescue, fire hotspot detection, and simulated high value target tracking. Haun said that series of flights included one-day integration of a signals intelligence sensor and Overwatch Imaging’s TK-9 sensor.

The aircraft can self-survey air fields for auto-takeoff, taxi and landing, Haun said. Flying into Grand Sky where Northrop Grumman has 36,000 square feet of hangar, classified and other facilities, the aircraft landed in the manned configuration and taxied to the hangar, with the data collected on the flight and taxi put to use for the UAV to do the same, he said.

Following the Grand Sky flight demonstration, Firebird will redeploy to its primary location in Mojave while engineering analyses and additional payload integration will occur before the next set of exercises early in 2021 in the littorals of a maritime environment for the government, Haun said.

Northrop Grumman has agreements with Tenax Aerospace and Grand Sky Development Company to purchase for rights to purchase Firebird. Northrop Grumman is working to close a deal with an international customer as well, Haun said.