What makes the ScanEagle unmanned air vehicle on display here this week different from the multitude of similar robot airplanes being touted for surveillance today? First, its endurance/payload combination is unmatched for a vehicle of its size, according to Boeing. Second, it is the first small UAV to have an inertially stabilized sensor turret. Third, it has already proved itself in combat, having flown more than 9,000 hours with the U.S. Marine Corps in Iraq since June 2004.
Boeing didn’t invent the ScanEagle. That distinction belongs to Insitu, a start-up company founded in 1992 in Washington state by Tad McGeer to develop his ideas for small but long-range autonomous UAVs.
Insitu designed and subsequently licensed production of the Aerosonde–a UAV to aid weather forecasting. Then it developed the SeaScan, which could be launched and recovered from small ships and used for a variety of maritime monitoring tasks, including fisheries protection. In March 2002, Insitu partnered with the Boeing Phantom Works to explore the obvious defense applications and the SeaScan became the ScanEagle. It then conducted a series of successful demonstrations leading to the Iraq contract and others.
Just four feet long and with a 10-foot wingspan, the ScanEagle is launched from a pneumatic wedge catapult. It can fly for more than 15 hours, at up to 16,000 feet, but is usually operated at low-level where its size and low noise makes it “nearly impossible to hear and see,” according to Insitu. The UAV is recovered by a “Skyhook” system whereby a rope hanging from a 50-foot pole snags the wing.
Missions can be preprogrammed or the operator can control them in real time via the uplink. Imagery from the electro-optical or infrared camera is returned via a 2.4 GHz downlink.
A modular internal avionics bay can easily accept new payloads. Boeing has already demonstrated a secure communications relay function, and is researching biochemical detection, laser illumination and a magnetometer.
Boeing and Insitu are supporting the two ScanEagle deployment units sent to Iraq. Each unit consists of several UAVs. The Marines have noted the high quality of the imagery, which they have used to call in air strikes against insurgents attacking their patrols. They say the ScanEagle can fly for much longer than the Pioneer UAV which they also operate.
According to Boeing, the ScanEagle’s endurance could be extended to more than 30 hours. The acquisition cost is quoted at $100,000 for a single system.