Thinking Tech

Video: Piloted aircraft transforms into a spy drone

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A new and versatile robotic aircraft hopes to turn heads when military officials seek to upgrade their arsenal later this month.

If recent events are any indication, robotic aircraft will play an increasingly significant role in U.S. military operations.

Drones such as the Predator and Reaper have already proved their mettle as difference makers against insurgents in Libya and Pakistan. And earlier this year, the armed forces gave a sneak peak of what the next generation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will be capable of when the Phantom Ray X-45C and X-47B stealth bomber both completed test flights, respectively. Now a more versatile robotic aircraft hopes to turn the heads of battlefield commanders who are continually seeking ways to upgrade their arsenal.

The Firebird optionally piloted aircraft (OPA), developed by Northman Grupman,  is a 34 foot-long, 5,000-pound spy vehicle that can not only operate as an autonomous drone, but as a piloted airplane as well. It can reach heights of 40,000 feet and has a cruising altitude of about 230 mph, with enough fuel capacity to stay airborne for 24 to 40 hours.

It comes equipped with high-resolution cameras, synthetic aperture radar (SAR), communications relays and eavesdropping technology. Also, the ability to convert into a piloted aircraft gives it an advantage over drones in that unmanned planes aren't allowed to venture into American airspace unattended.

The company is confident that these features will leave an favorable impression on government officials when the Firebird is demonstrated during the Pentagon's Empire Challenge, a showcase for military contract hopefuls that's held later this month.

In the meantime, the rest of us will have to make do with this promotional video and soundtrack:

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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure