Italian-made drone packs power and style

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Autonomous aircraft that are controlled from the ground are already making a huge difference in the way military operations are run, and there are many more of these drones on the way. One of the most advanced drones built so far was on display at the 49th Farnborough Air Show this month: called the P.1HH Hammerhead, the Italian-made aircraft looks like a jet plane, but there’s no pilot sitting inside the cockpit.

Packed with state-of-the-art technology, the P.1HH completed a major round of testing in February, and is designed to fly at an elevation of 45,000 feet (13,700 metres). It’s built to carry out surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance missions for its owners without putting any human lives at risk in the process. As far as military drones are concerned, it’s one of the most powerful in the pipeline.

What makes the drone stand out is its versatility and the distance it can travel on one tank of fuel

What makes the drone stand out is its versatility and the distance it can travel on one tank of fuel

Flexible flyer

What makes the P.1HH Hammerhead distinctive? In part it’s the aircraft’s flexibility: it’s capable of a broad range of missions and flying modes, and its payloads can be reconfigured quickly to meet different needs out in the field. Thanks to its powerful pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada engines, it provides its operators with a fast climb gradient that can get the Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) in the air quickly.

At its lowest airspeed of 135 knots (about 155mph) the P.1HH has a flight time of around 16 hours — this makes it useful to military commanders for extended missions deep into enemy territory, as the drone can cover around 2,500 miles in that time. If more urgency is required, the plane is able to ramp its speed up to 395 knots (455mph) for a faster getaway or interception.

The aircraft can be used for a variety of missions across land and sea

The aircraft can be used for a variety of missions across land and sea

Empty cockpit?

With no pilot on board the P.1HH Hammerhead, the computer software powering it is crucial. The Mission Management System (MMS) fitted to the plane takes in data from its integrated sensors, video cameras and flight monitors and feeds it back to a team on the ground. It’s designed to be able to spot terrorist activities or human trafficking happening on the ground, and can keep an airborne eye on anything from a nation’s borders to an emergency disaster zone.

The Ground Control Station (GCS) handles everything reported by the MMS, and there’s enough equipment in the GCS to operate three P.1HH drones at once, essential for when they’re swapping shifts or returning for refuelling. Human operators can make decisions based on the data fed back from the drone or an autopilot-style application can step in instead. An encrypted data link between plane and base ensures the communications can’t be hijacked.

Most aspects of the P.1HH's operation, including take-off and landing, can be handled automatically (© Piaggio Aero)

Most aspects of the P.1HH’s operation, including take-off and landing, can be handled automatically

Throwing shapes

With a wingspan of 15.6m (51 ft), the P.1HH Hammerhead measures 14.4m (47 ft) in length and 3.9m (13 ft) in height. That makes it a little shorter but significantly wider than the typical fighter jets that you might see roaming the skies today. The wings can be removed to enable the drone to be transported by air, sea or land, and the makers say that it can be deployed within a 24-hour window when needed.

“With a unique combination of performance and operational characteristics, the P.1HH HammerHead is at the very top end of the UAS Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) category,” said its makers ahead of the aircraft’s unveiling at the Farnborough Air Show. Development on the plane will continue throughout the rest of the year, though there’s no fixed date on when the P.1HH will be ready for purchase and deployment. The bulk of the buyers are expected to come from Europe and the Middle East.

Everything on board the plane is monitored, with data send back to a Ground Control Station (© Piaggio Aero)

Everything on board the plane is monitored, with data send back to a Ground Control Station

Automatic operator

One of the P.1HH Hammerhead’s most innovative features is the ability to take-off and land automatically, if the situation requires it. This obviously gives the drone more flexibility to work in remote areas or when communication is lost with the Ground Control Station. Also worth noting is the smart fuel system that’s able to adapt to different types of cargo to provide the most efficient operation.

The twin engine/propeller configuration is designed to work at a range of altitudes and in all weathers: the wings are fitted with anti-icing measures and there’s an integrated fire extinguisher system as well should something go wrong. That shouldn’t be an issue though — the business jet that the P.1HH is based on has been flying for 20 years without any problem.

 

This prototype edition of the plane has undergone a vigorous round of testing (© Piaggio Aero)

This prototype edition of the plane has undergone a vigorous round of testing

In the words of Piaggio Aero, the P.1HH Hammerhead offers “an unmatched combination of range, wide operative speeds, fast climb gradient, high operative ceiling and variety of payloads”, giving potential buyers a system that’s both powerful and flexible. At the Farnborough Air Show the team announced that its “autonomous flight modes and control laws” have been validated — essentially, the software and hardware works as intended.

That gives Piaggio Aero and its partners the all-clear to start moving from the prototype to the production phase. The next task is to fit a new Selex ES radar Seaspray 7300E to the aircraft to maximise its ability to assess the environment around it. It’s another step forward in the rise of the drones as they play an ever-increasing role in patrolling the skies.

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