To Drone or Not

Unmanned aerial vehicles are all the rage at the moment and for obvious reasons - they don't risk humans in hostile environments and they don't get tired or need bathroom breaks. So it's a little surprising to see Firebird, a prototype surveillance airplane from Northrop Grumman, that can operate as a pilotless drone or operate as a piloted airplane.

We've seen recent examples of Elmo the test dummy taking the place of a human for tests of a jetpack and a suborbital rocket, but Northrop's unusual step of designing a contemporary airplane with drone and piloted capabilities is hard to fathom. By including (or just having the option to include) the human control interfaces and life support systems, the Firebird is adding weight, complexity, and costs, thus negating many of the benefits of a dedicated drone design. In addition the overall configuration of the airplane will likely be compromised by having to incorporate a cockpit in a prominent position to give pilots a good view of their surroundings.

It will be interesting to see how this unique type of drone-pilot hybrid airplane plays out and whether it can find a role in an increasingly drone-dominated surveillance fleet.

Thanks goes to the LA Times for covering this new airplane.