Although the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as Global Hawk and Raven for military information gathering has increased sharply in the last decade due to the maturation and miniaturization of enabling technologies, conventional piloted aircraft can still be a better option depending on the mission at hand. Northrop Grumman has unveiled a new intelligence gathering aircraft called the Firebird that falls into the category of an Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV) with its ability to be flown robotically or with a human pilot on board.

While the manned or unmanned flight option sets it apart from similar aircraft, Northrop Grumman is also touting the Firebird's real time data collection capabilities. These are enabled through the aircraft's large internal payload bay and payload capacity of 1,240 lbs (562 kg), which gives it the ability to operate multiple intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and communications payloads simultaneously through a universal interface. The company says this is similar to a plugging a memory stick into a personal computer that is automatically recognized without needing to load additional software.

Northrop Grumman says Firebird will provide military users with the ability to gather real-time high definition video, view infrared imagery, use radar and listen in on communication signals, all at the same time. Additionally, the large internal payload bay means the aircraft doesn't need to carry external pods to house sensor payloads that can cause drag and reduce the aircraft's flight time.

"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."

Designed as a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance aircraft, the twin tailed Firebird has a rearward facing" propeller (pusher) configuration and is powered by a Lycoming TEO-540 engine. It has a wingspan of 65 ft (19.8 m), is 34 ft (10.3 m) long, 9.7 ft (3 m) high and can fly at altitudes of up to 30,000 ft for periods of 24 to 40 hours, depending on its configuration.

Northrop Grumman developed the Firebird's unmanned systems architecture, control and mission systems, while Scaled Composites - the company behind Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne, SpaceShipTwo and WhiteKnightTwo which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2007 - was responsible for designing, building and testing the aircraft. It was one of the last aircraft designs overseen by aerospace engineer Burt Rutan, who retired last month.

The Firebird is set to be demonstrated in an optionally-piloted configuration between May 23 and June 3, 2011, during a U.S. Joint Forces Command run military exercise called Empire Challenge 2011 hosted at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.

Until now, OPVs have largely been seen as a low-cost alternative to UAVs in areas of research, experimentation and concept exploration, but the development of the Firebird could see such aircraft playing a more prominent role in the military.