MALE Performance Enhancement: Piaggio’s P.1HH Hammerhead UAV
At present, the USA and Israel have strong global leads in the UAV field, especially in the area of plane-sized Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) class or larger machines. That lead is eroding quickly, however, as new countries and firms decide that UAVs offer a useful niche with manageable development costs.
Poor US policy is also helping to drive this trend, and the new P.1HH “Hammerhead” UAV is a classic example. Italy is likely to become the initial customer for this high-performance UAV, but the platform itself and the Italian firm that makes it have strong connections to the UAE…
The P.1HH Hammerhead UAV
The P.1HH Hammerhead is based on Piaggio’s sleek, Ferrari-approved P180 Avanti II business turboprop. Rapid deployment inside larger aircraft is engineered by adding a quickly detachable joint for the outer wings, and the high aspect ratio laminar wings have been stretched from 14.03m to a 15.5m/ 50’10″ wingspan. Maximum takeoff weight is slightly higher than its civil progenitor, at 6,146 kg / 13,550 pounds.
The Mach 0.7 certified P180 begins with jet-class speed, and the Hammerhead maintains that legacy. Its rear-facing Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-66B turboprop engines, and low noise propellers, let it cruise quietly at 395 knots/ 732 km per hour for fast deployment or wide-area coverage; alternatively, it can throttle down to a Predator-like 135 knots to get a slower look, or to stretch endurance. It flight ceiling of 45,000 feet sits above many competitors, offering protection from shorter-range air defense missiles. The Hammerhead does give up some endurance relative to a Predator, with only 16 hours at low speed loiter. On the other hand, the P180 Avanti II has an impressive 2,700 km/ 1,500 nmi range, and the Hammerhead’s civil derivation will give it a leg up for flight certification in unrestricted areas.
The core of the UAV is the Selex ES SkyISTAR Mission Management System (MMS), coupled with the firm’s Vehicle Control Management System (VCMS) that commands the aerodynamic control surfaces and manages the on-board equipment. VCMS LRUs are installed inside the large volume fuselage, spaced for temperature control as well as survivability. Selex ES also supplies remote-piloting Ground Control Station (GCS), and UAS datalink and communications systems that can work beyond line of sight (BLOS). The UAV and GCS are NATO STANAG USAR 4671 compliant, which will help streamline approval to fly in the airspace of other countries that have ratified this UAV airworthiness standard.
To put all that together: The MMS handles the overall mission, runs the sensors, and processes the data. During flight operations, the on-board VCMS is commanded from the off-board GCS via the airborne datalink system, and relies on a triple redundancy Flight Control Computer (FCC) system and multiple remote multi-lane Servo Interface Units (SIU) to handle the aircraft. The ATOL takes over for take-offs and landing, which should contribute to fewer losses.
Payload could be more than 500 kg, but Piaggio plans to keep it within that limit, in order to avoid export issues with the Missile Technology Control Regime (MCTR) that Italy has signed. Finmeccanica’s Selex ES will supply an electro-optical day/night turret, along with its e-scan Seaspray 7300 radar for land and maritime surveillance.
Initial plans involve a surveillance-only UAV, but there is more than sufficient space for weapons in a weapons bay, if customers like Italy decide they want that. The key limitation is the MTCR treaty’s 500 kg payload maximum, not the aircraft’s capabilities.
Positioning and Prospects
The P.1HH Hammerhead a solid set of attributes, with design advantages that are likely to endure. Even so, product positioning could make sales beyond Italy and the UAE a challenge. Even if all American and Israeli rivals like the MQ-9 Reaper, Predator XP, Hermes 900, and IAI Heron TP were excluded from consideration, the Hammerhead will still need to compete with Turkey’s Anka, Denel of South Africa’s Bateleur, Sagem’s Patroller, the UAE’s own ADCOM (United-40 et. al.), and developments in Europe and in countries like India, South Korea, and China. The dominant theme in those comparisons is still a tradeoff. The Hammerhead gives buyers extra speed, and sometimes extra payload and range as well, in exchange for less endurance and the possibility of higher operating costs. The P180 Avanti II may offer remarkable efficiency for its aircraft class, but a twin-engine passenger aircraft conversion isn’t likely to match thinner and slower single-engine, never-manned designs.
As a surveillance-only UAV, Piaggio will need to depend on customers whose need to cover large areas with fewer assets eclipses the value of longer orbits. That’s a limiting definition. If they do develop weapons options that don’t require American approval, they’ll open an important sales window, but other countries are also working to close that gap. Their long-term advantage would be much swifter reaction time, which is real but still a tradeoff for less ongoing coverage. Meanwhile, Piaggio’s use of Pratt & Whitney turboprops gives the USA enough leverage to block sales using its ITAR weapons export laws; that’s exactly what they did to block an export sale of Brazilian EMB-314 Super Tucano light attack turboprops to Venezuela.
Despite a November 2013 agreement to resurrect a European MALE UAV project, and the Hammerhead’s clear positioning as a qualified candidate that won’t require a lot of development investment, Europe doesn’t look especially promising. European programs prefer to hand out favors to large, established firms, even if it means re-inventing the wheel – recall the Tiger attack helicopter program, and corresponding rejection of AgustaWestland’s similar and ready-to-buy A129. Selex ES has ties to Italy’s Finmeccanica, but those ties would have to to eclipse Alenia’s UAV partnership with EADS, and Italy won’t be in the driver’s seat of a European UAV partnership. European success would be a pleasant surprise, but it would be a surprise.
Contracts & Key Events
Nov 18/13: MPA. Tawazun Group subsidiary ADASI says that their P180 MPA program is on schedule, with the first prototype set for its first flight in mid-2014 in Italy. Their release is interesting, because it also suggests potential targets and reach for the Hammerhead:
“The UAE-based company and its partners are actively promoting the MPA as a high-tech solution for maritime patrol, ground surveillance, tactical Intelligence ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and COMNIT (intelligence, technical and intelligence information) security, and have identified Asia, Australia, Africa and the Middle East as the target markets.”
Nov 14/13: 1st flight. Initial flight of the P.1HH HammerHead DEMO, at Italy’s Trapani “Birgi” Air Force base.
If the UAV continues to be successful, it might be able to act as the missing component of the long-frozen M-346 advanced jet trainer deal with Italy. The UAE is looking for a UAV they can arm, and it might also form a very interesting manned/unmanned offering combination with the P180 MPA. Sources: Piaggio Aero, Nov 18/13 release.
Oct 31/13: Buy in. Piaggio Aero sees its share structure list heavily toward the UAE and India, after a Shareholders Assembly approves a EUR 190 million buy-in. The HDI Hedge Fund drops from 33% to a 12.5% share. At the same time, Chairman Piero Ferrari increased his share from 1% to 2%, Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala Development Company raised their share from 33% to 41%, and India’s TATA Group raised its stake from 33% to 44.5%.
While Piaggio is a civil aircraft company, it’s stuck in a classically Italian slow production mode of about 11-12 planes per year. Many of the new funds are reportedly earmarked for the firm’s 2 defense projects, the Maritime Patrol variant and the P.1HH Hammerhead UAV. Sources: Piaggio Aero Nov 12/13 release | Defense News, “UAE Ups Its Stake in Drone-maker Piaggio Aero” | Defense World, “UAE To Beef Up Stake In New Italian UAV Development”.
June 18-24/13: Italy. Italy indicates that they intend to buy 10 Piaggio P.1HH “Hammerhead” MALE UAVs. Taxi tests have already begun and flight testing is expected to begin at the Italian government’s Sardinian test ranges in August or September 2013, with the Aeronautica Millitare managing military certification. Italy is looking for an initial operational capability in 2016-17, and says they will proceed with or without additional partners. Firm backing would give the Hammerhead at least a chance of competing in France and beyond. Aviation Week | AIN re: Hammerhead | Aviation Week follow-on.
June 12/13: Testing. Piaggio tests the Hammerhead UAV’s Vehicle Control Management System (VCMS) in a series of engine and ground handling tests. Sources: Piaggio Aero, June 12/13.
June 18/13: Rollout. Piaggio publicly unveils the P.1HH Hammerhead UAV at the Paris Air Show, after less than a year developing the aircraft in conjunction with Finmeccanica’s Selex ES. CEO Alberto Galassi says:
“The P.1HH HammeHead [sic] and the MPA Multirole Patrol aircraft are the most challenging and technologically advanced aviation programme that Piaggio Aero has ever conceived. They support Piaggio Aero in its newly declared vision of becoming a prominent player in the surveillance and security sector producing leading edge Unmanned Aerial Systems and Multirole Patrol Aircraft together with our world recognized state of the art business aviation aircraft.”
Sources: Piaggio, June 18/13 release.
May 9/13: Italy. Aviation Week interviews Italy’s national armaments director Gen. Claudio Debertolis, who reveals that Italy asked to arm its MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs 2 years ago. The USA has refused to cooperate, halting Italian efforts even though Italy is responsible for wide swathes of territory in Afghanistan, and was the point country for NATO’s campaign against Libya in 2011.
Arming the Aeronautica Militare’s UAVs is a high priority, and Debertolis confirms that Italy is in talks with potential European partners to move forward with a covert “Super MALE” weaponized UAV program. The main question revolves around funding. America may have delayed Italy for so long that it doesn’t have the budget to do anything, even convert its existing UAVs. Aviation Week.
Feb 14/13: Testing. The Hammerhead UAV has its 1st engine start and runway taxi. It’s equipped with 2 rear-facing Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-66B turboprop engines, and low noise 5-blade scimitar propellers. Source: Piaggio Aero, June 18/13 release.
July 13/12: P180 MPA. The UAE firm Tawazun is financing development of a Maritime Patrol Aircraft variant of the Avanti II turboprop, with a wingspan stretched all the way out to 21.38 m/ 65′ 2″. Mission endurance at 100 mni from base, in the most taxing low-level (5,000′) profile, is estimated at 7 hours with 45 minutes of fuel reserve. The project will come under Tawazun’s Abu Dhabi Autonomous Systems Investments (ADASI), who is financing the development of 2 prototypes from a team that includes Piaggio, Sweden’s Saab, and Tawazun firms. First flight is scheduled for 2014.
The UAE bought 2 Bombardier Q400 MPA aircraft in 2009, and Saab has its own MPA candidate based in its Saab 340 turboprop, but the Avanti MPA’s performance is much closer to existing maritime patrol jets like Embraer’s EMB-145 MP. A range of up to 6,111 km/ 3,3300 nmi, at up to 41,000 feet, with 10+ hour endurance at 648 kph/ 350 knots is certainly competitive, while offering efficiency bonuses during maritime patrol’s low-level flight profiles.
The UAE’s air force already operates 2 P180s as VIP/ MEDEVAC/ Utility aircraft, and ADASI & Mubadala’s involvement lead observers to believe that the UAE will supplement its 2 Q400s with some P180 MPAs, once development is complete. Neighboring Oman would also be a good candidate, but they bought 5 C295 MPAs in 2012; Mubadala may have more luck with the smaller GCC states like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Qatar. The MPA will contribute to the Hammerhead’s market opportunities by trialing potential cross-over equipment, and also by establishing sales reach and reputation in conjunction with the UAE. Then, too, a common manned-unmanned force combination might be very interesting to some buyers. Sources: UAE’s The National, “Mubadala partnership with Piaggio takes flight”.
- Piaggio Aero – P180 Avanti II
- Piaggio Aero – MPA Maritime Patrol Aircraft. Mini-site.
- Piaggio Aero – P.1HH Hammerhead. Mini site.
- Mubadala Development Company – Piaggio Aero SpA. One of their investments profile pages. A Middle Eastern partner isn’t a bad idea for a luxury, high-design turboprop business aircraft. Note that the firm is state-owned.
- Think Defence (June 19/13) – Telemos, Talarion, Hammerhead and the Mystery of the European MALE