Spy Plane Can Be Flown by Pilot—or Act as Drone
2-in-1 aircraft Firebird could save US military money
By Matt Cantor,  Newser User
Posted May 9, 2011 12:20 PM CDT
A shot of the aircraft from Northrop Grumman.   (Northrop Grumman)
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(Newser) – Northrop Grumman’s latest aircraft isn’t just a drone—nor is it only designed for manned flight. The Firebird, set for unveiling today, can do both with just a few modifications, the Los Angeles Times reports. From 30,000 feet in the air, the spy plane can eavesdrop on phone chats, capture live video, and use radar. “Unmanned aircraft is taking on increasingly difficult missions. However, in the fog of war, there are still situations where you need a pilot's instinct inside the cockpit,” says an aerospace analyst. It’s not a military commission, but Northrop expects government interest.

Having one plane that can do both could lower maintenance personnel and spare parts costs. It’s “highly affordable because of the number of different missions it can accomplish during a single flight,” says a Northrop rep, calling it “a real game-changer”—no word on how much a Firebird would cost, though. With a top speed of 230mph, the Firebird can fly for up to 40 hours at once—and though it’s chiefly intended as a spy plane, it can also be outfitted with missiles, Northrop says.