Scaled's Latest: Pilot-Optional Spyplane

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The latest design from Scaled Composites, a military reconnaissance aircraft that can fly with or without a pilot, was unveiled on Monday by Northrop Grumman, Scaled's parent company. The aircraft, called Firebird, took about a year to develop and has already flown several times at the Mojave spaceport. It was one of the last designs to be overseen by Scaled founder Burt Rutan before he retired last month. The airplane features several innovative systems, such as an internal payload bay that eliminates the need for external pods and makes it easy to quickly load and unload a variety of sensors. "It's a real game changer," 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."

Firebird has a 65-foot wingspan, flies at about 200 knots, and can stay aloft for up to 40 hours at 30,000 feet. Northrop Grumman doesn't have a military contract or launch customer yet. Besides military and intelligence missions, the aircraft could be used for law enforcement, environmental monitoring, border patrol, scientific research and other uses. No price has been announced. Firebird is scheduled to be flown, with a pilot, during a military exercise based in Arizona, from May 23 to June 3.