Italian business aircraft manufacturer Piaggio and Selex Electronic Systems are working together to produce an unmanned variant of the P-180 Avanti executive turboprop aircraft.

Named P.1HH Hammerhead, the new variant of the Avanti has been extensively modified for its UAS role. According to Piaggio the new version will be capable of 16 hours of operation carrying a range of payloads including Sigint and Elint packages as well as being able to conduct border and maritime surveillance and electronic warfare. Weapons and other external stores could also be fitted to pylons attached to the forward fuselage. The aircraft has been developed to capture part of the medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) market against aircraft such as the MQ-9 Reaper or BAE Systems Mantis.

The two companies have been quietly working on the self-funded program for more than two years. They unveiled a model of the aircraft at the IDEX defense exhibition in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 18 following the rollout and first taxi-tests at an airbase in Italy on Feb. 14.

“There is a requirement from many countries for a medium altitude, long endurance UAS in Europe and elsewhere,” said Alberto Galassi, CEO of Piaggio Aero. “We are providing a platform that is a certified aircraft, this will make it a more attractive option as restrictions on UAS’ become stricter.”

The Hammerhead will be controlled from mission control stations produced by Selex, with line of sight and beyond line of sight using satellite communications. The mission system is a development of Selex’s SkyISTAR system allowing the fitment of a range of sensors. Selex is also providing the aircraft’s vehicle management and control system, and air data terminals. Other changes to the aircraft include a removable external section of the wing which according to Piaggio will help assist in ground transportation of the aircraft if required.

“It is important that we look at unmanned capabilities,” said Galassi, “with low demand for business aircraft, we need to look at other sectors of the market.”

“With the Hammerhead, we wanted to be sure it was right before we revealed the program,” he added.

Piaggio hopes to fly the prototype Hammerhead before the end of the year and plans to begin marketing it to potential customers at the Paris Air Show in June.

This is the third special mission variant of the Avanti. At the 2012 Farnborough Air Show, Abu Dhabi Autonomous System Investments (ADASI) revealed plans to develop a maritime patrol variant of the P.180, and Rockwell Collins has been selected to provide a new avionics suite for the MPA variant. First flight of that version is expected in 2014. There is also a ‘flight checker’ version of the P.180 for flight inspection duties.