Northrop Grumman unveils new Firebird spy plane

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Alan Radecki/Northrop Grumman

The Firebird can can listen in on phone conversations, use high-powered radar and shoot live video footage as it flies at 30,000 feet above the Earth.

Northrop Grumman is test-flying a new spy plane over the Mojave desert. The Firebird can be flown with or without a pilot. Rick Crooks, Northrop’s director of advanced projects, led the development team and describes the plane - and its future.

Crooks says that the Firebird could be used for border surveillance, wildfire support staff, first responders in natural disasters, monitoring situations like the Gulf oil spill – either in manned or unmanned modes. "All of these scenarios can be addressed more easily with manned assets, and then in the long term, transition to the unmanned mode," says Crooks, adding that the unmanned option is useful for endurance flights.

There's also the possibility of military use.

"Firebird could be armed; today, it's not our primary focus," Crooks says.

Northrop designed the Firebird on spec and the company hopes to get a Pentagon contract.

"Certainly in the budget-constrained environment that we have, it's challenging to come out with a new product," says Crooks. "However, the need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance isn't going down, and it won't go down anytime soon. This product offers something that is not currently available today.

Crooks says Northrop believes that the Firebird will pay for itself by reducing training, manpower, support and sustainment costs, and that using the Firebird will ultimately be more cost effective.

There isn't a lot of direct competition when it comes to planes where the pilot is optional, says Crooks. "What it's really about is changing the view, and maybe changing buying habits, to understand the value of this mission scenario, and maybe spend existing money differently."

Northrop looks forward to demonstrating the Firebird, says Crooks. They'll be at an exercise for the next month at Fort Huachuca, showing the Firebird to the U.S. Army.

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