This Sensor-Packed Spy Plane Can Fly with or without a PilotS

Hauling tourists into space—that's for tomorrow. Today, the legendary aerospace designers at Scaled Composites unveiled a new spy plane that can snoop on the unsuspecting four different ways, and doesn't need a human in the cockpit to fly.

Scaled Composites is best-known for its private spacecraft, like the one Virgin Galactic plans to use to take well-heeled tourists into orbit. But Scaled is also a division of the giant defense contractor Northrop Grumman. So Richard Branson isn't the firm's only customer.

On February 9, 2009, Northrop executive Rick Crooks called Scaled president Doug Shane with an idea for a new military surveillance aircraft: one that could swap out sensors as easily as thumb drives, and could fly with a pilot onboard - or not. Exactly one year later, that aircraft, dubbed "Firebird," made its first test flight. Last week, pictures of the plane, taken from Beale Air Force base in California, started leaking online. Now, Scaled and Northrop are introducing the plane to the public, just before it takes part in a Pentagon wargame, the Empire Challenge 2011.

Like many of Scaled's designs, the 34 foot-long, 5000-pound Firebird doesn't look like a typical plane. It's got these twin booms in the back, which allow sensors and antennas to be carried away from the main fuselage; they also make it easier for the plane to take off and land on the sorts of rugged runways you might find in a war zone.

This Sensor-Packed Spy Plane Can Fly with or without a PilotS

But Crooks says the most interesting part about the Firebird is what's inside. The plane can carry a bundle of up to four different electronics packages - a combination of high-resolution cameras, synthetic aperture radars, communications relays, or eavesdropping gear. Those gadgets are carried in racks inside the plane, rather than on pods hanging off of the wings. They're joined together by a network that's separate from the one used to fly the plane. Which means the gear can be swapped out easily, rather than going through years of testing a flight certification.

"The airplane becomes a bus, providing a rise for whatever sensor," Crooks tells Danger Room. "It takes days or weeks to get a new payload integrated, instead of years."

The Firebird can fly at up to 30,000 for anywhere from 24 to 40 hours, Crooks figures. It can also turn from a standard plane to a drone, pretty much instantly. That's useful because the federal government remains skittish about letting drones fly in American airspace unattended. Over Afghanistan, though – that's a different story. Tricked-out executive jets join Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles and robot blimps in the skies, and they all stare down on what's below.

The Firebird won't be joining them anytime soon - it's a Northrop demonstration vehicle, not a military-sponsored aircraft. But Crooks says its "ready to conduct missions" right now. Meanwhile, Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo is in the middle of glide tests. If all goes well, it'll take its first gaggle of gawkers into orbit some time in 2012.

Update 1:27 p.m.: Firebird isn't Scaled's first unmanned aerial vehicle. That would be the Proteus, which was planned as "an ultra low level satellite type relay," emails Wired.com aviation correspondent Jason Paur. "The airplane was designed to orbit at ~65,000 feet for more than 15 hours at a time over a city with a dish that would relay communications."

The antenna dish was mounted tilted on the fuselage so it would be level in the constant banking circle the airplane would fly and the wing tips are dielectric to avoid any interference. The idea was it could be higher bandwidth than satellite, much cheaper than satellite, and the technology inside could be changed whenever needed.

Three were going to be used in rotation for 24/7 coverage. That company never made it, but it's also been proposed as a UAV and Northrop has been using it extensively for testing many high altitude observation/communication ideas.