July 11, 2012
Piaggio is teaming with Saab to develop a new maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) based on a highly modified version of its P.180 Avanti II business aircraft.
At the Farnborough air show on July 10, Piaggio Aero announced that it signed a contract with Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments, a subsidiary of Tawazun, covering the development of the aircraft and the construction of two prototypes. The first is to fly in 2014.
In a separate announcement, Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) and ITT Exelis said they would team up to develop and deploy a wide-area airborne surveillance (WAAS) system based on the Gorgon Stare Increment II that the two companies are producing for the U.S. Air Force. Vigilant Stare, as the new version is called, will be carried on a Twin Otter rather than a Reaper UAV, and SNC and Exelis are planning to operate the aircraft themselves and provide surveillance to customers on a fee-for-service plan.
Like other WAAS systems, Vigilant Stare will provide users with continuous, full-area surveillance of an area the size of a small town, with enough resolution to track walking individuals.
Together, the two announcements show that end-user interest in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms based on commercial aircraft is still rising, as customers start to appreciate their advantages over unmanned air vehicles, including lower accident rates and trouble-free integration into national and international airspace.
The Piaggio MPA project is important for other reasons, not the least of which is that it is the first major modification of an existing light commercial design for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. 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.
Low internal noise and the P.180’s cabin, one of the largest and tallest in its class, are other claimed advantages. The new MPA is, according to Piaggio, being designed so that it also can be equipped for ground surveillance, tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, or communications/signals intelligence.
It is also noteworthy that the project is being financed from Abu Dhabi, while Piaggio is jointly owned by the UAE’s Mubadala Aerospace and India’s Tata group. Saab will presumably use the same avionics architecture used on its new 340MPA program.