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.

Saab's mission system will be similar to the package developed for the company's own 340 MPA, which made its air show debut at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough. The 340 MPA consoles, processors and software are intended to be platform- and sensor-agnostic. Saab's demonstrator has a Telephonics APS-143 radar and Flir Systems electro-optical turret.

Two other announcements the week of the show suggest that many users—not just military—are interested in the kind of wide-area surveillance system deployed by the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Sierra Nevada Corp. and ITT Exelis are teaming 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 USAF.

The new version, Vigilant Stare, will be carried on a Twin Otter rather than a Reaper UAV, and Sierra Nevada and Exelis plan to operate the aircraft themselves and provide surveillance to customers on a fee-for-service basis.

Like other WAAS, Vigilant Stare will provide continuous, full-area surveillance of an area the size of a small town, with enough resolution to track walking individuals.

Northrop Grumman, a non-attendee at Farnborough, unveiled its own civilian-based wide-area sensor demonstrator at the Airborne Law Enforcement Association conference in Reno, Nev., on July 11. The Air Claw is based on the Quest Aircraft Kodiak single-engine utility aircraft, and the demonstrator includes a Persistent Surveillance Systems Hawkeye WAAS.

At the lower end of the size scale, Austria's Airborne Technologies' multi-mission aircraft version of the Italian-built Tecnam P2006T light twin was highlighted. The display aircraft is to be delivered to AeroGB, which specializes in providing surveillance services to civilian and non-military government customers, on a fee-for-service basis, and will enter service under contract to an unspecified U.K. police organization.

AeroGB promotes the P2006T as a lower-cost, more flexible alternative to a light helicopter. Similar in size to a Cessna 172 or a Cirrus SR22, its two Rotax 912S3 engines are certificated to run on automotive fuel, reducing operational costs. It only needs about 400 meters (1,312 ft.) of runway and is almost inaudible at normal patrol altitude.

It has lower vibration levels than a helicopter, which improves sensor performance. AeroGB director Graham James, a former police officer, says an important part of the company's sales campaign is to “help customers understand the available technology. Many companies don't believe radar can do anything for them, but it can do a lot.