The Firebird would compete for Pentagon contracts with the Predator and Reaper drones that have become ubiquitous in skies over Iraq and Afghanistan. Made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. of the San Diego area, Predators and Reapers are often armed with Hellfire missiles or laser-guided bombs as they buzz over the war zone.
Although the Firebird is being touted mainly as an unarmed spy plane, Northrop officials said the Firebird would have the capability to be outfitted with missiles.
Northrop has been testing the aircraft, which resembles a massive dragonfly, at the Mojave Air and Space Port for more than a year as engineers fine-tune the technology.
The Firebird will have a demonstration flight for military brass this month at the Pentagon’s Empire Challenge, a showcase where defense companies demonstrate technologies that can be used in the field in the near term.
Northrop has touted the airframe’s flexibility to go manned or unmanned as the mission dictates. And as Claudio pointed out last week, this design could make transiting the National Airspace System somewhat easier to coordinate, since the FAA is growing increasingly concerned about the lag times between ATC commands and drone responses in our already heavily trafficked air corridors, point-to-point line of sight communications having characteristically less latency than routed IP traffic over satellite comms paths. For the first we assume a three second reaction time when ATC points out traffic. For the second, the commands must move from the TRACON to the UAS, thence to a satellite, from there to a ground station, where the flight control command is then sent back to the UAS via satellite, inducing delays of unpredictable length.
It would be hard, I think, to recruit military aviators to fly an aircraft that really can do it all without them. But I can think of one or two retired military aviators, at least, that would be up for the challenge.
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