July 23, 2012
Credit: Credit: Piaggio Aero
Bill Sweetman Farnborough
Drones may grab the headlines, but when it comes down to business, it's becoming increasingly clear that they face serious competition from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms based on small commercial aircraft—from small regional aircraft down to personal airplanes. The Farnborough venue highlighted that trend, with a battery of new-program announcements and show debuts.
There are several reasons for this shift in the market. Probably the most basic is that commercial platforms, even with pilots, are no more expensive to operate than large UAVs and may sometimes cost less (a U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee report found that the U.S. Air Force's King Air-based Project Liberty is cheaper per hour than the Reaper). The aircraft also raise no issues when it comes to flying in national or international airspace, and many operators do not face an air threat or operate over disputed or hostile territory. Also, onboard operators make the system less dependent on a high-bandwidth data link—which is in itself a significant cost item on a UAV.
The biggest surprise at Farnborough was the revelation of a United Arab Emirates-backed program to develop a small, high-performance ISR platform.
Piaggio is teaming with Saab on the project, based on a highly modified version of its P.180 Avanti II. The first version will be a maritime patrol aircraft, but Piaggio says it is being designed so it can also be equipped for ground surveillance, tactical ISR or communications/signals intelligence (sigint).
Piaggio has signed a firm contract with Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (Adasi), a subsidiary of Tawazun, covering development of the aircraft and construction of two prototypes, with the first to fly in 2014.
Adasi acts as program manager for several of the UAE armed forces' major programs, including the Al Sabr program, based in the Schiebel Camcopter S-100 vertical takeoff UAV. Adasi's involvement and the scale of the program likely indicate that the P.180 MPA is to be adopted by the UAE air force.
The Piaggio MPA project is the first major modification of an existing light commercial design for ISR. The MPA platform will have a bigger wing than a standard P.180, a greater takeoff weight and more fuel capacity. It will have a maximum range of 3,300 nm and an endurance of 10 hr. (6 hr. at low altitude) while retaining the 350-kt. cruise speed and 41,000-ft. service ceiling of the basic aircraft—both desirable features for sigint or optical reconnaissance.