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Firebird Plane Can Have Pilot, Or Not

Northrop Grumman Firebird plane in a pilotless configuration in this undated ...

Credit: Northrup Grumman

Above: Northrop Grumman Firebird plane in a pilotless configuration in this undated photo.

San Diego-based defense contractor Northrop Grumman has created a medium-sized aircraft capable of flying with or without a pilot.

The Firebird can fly at 25,000 feet and carry out a wide variety of surveillance missions for firefighters, police or the military.

Northrop Grumman officials said the Firebird’s strength is flexibility.

“This is not an unmanned aircraft. It is not a manned aircraft. It is both. And it's going to change how people think about what kinds of operations they can do with aircraft. And how they can use the sensors on those aircraft,” said Kristen Griffin, who works for Northrop Grumman in San Diego.

Griffin said it will change the way people think about surveillance aircraft.

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The plane can be flown with a pilot to reach a location. Then, the craft could be changed to an unpiloted plane and undertake long missions.

“Today, there's more flexibility with manned aircraft flying in the national airspace. Unmanned aircraft operate differently. So this manned aircraft gives you really tremendous operational flexibility to use this however you may need, and then the unmanned aircraft provides that exquisite persistence when you need it,” Griffin said.

The unmanned craft can fly for up to 30 hours, making it a valuable tool for fighting wildfires, monitoring natural disasters or conducting military surveillance.

Northrop Grumman also makes the unmanned Global Hawk surveillance plane.

A plane developed and designed in San Diego could become a widely used surveillance tool.

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