Singapore Air Show

ScanEagle UAV success hooked Boeing on Insitu

 - January 27, 2010, 10:19 AM

Singapore last year joined the expanding list of countries that have tested and/or introduced the ScanEagle, a UAV that was designed in the 1990s as a maritime monitoring tool that could be launched and recovered by fishing ships. The world being a dangerous place, military surveillance applications have long since become the staple diet for the makers, Insitu.

This small American company based in southern Washington state went into partnership with Boeing in 2002 and was bought by the defense giant in 2008. Insitu delivered its 1,000th UAV last year, is now producing a family of them at a rate of 50 per month and enjoyed revenue of more than $200 million last year.

International business director Eric Edsall attributed much of Insitu’s success to a “secret sauce” consisting of a small-company culture that emphasizes agility and innovation, combined with a service-based business model. Insitu built its reputation by offering turnkey operations via a large force of field service representatives (FSRs). Contracts have typically included guarantees of coverage, such as 15 hours of imagery per day. The FSRs typically are deployed for three months of intensive work, followed by three months off, and receive a good bonus.

But basic design has also played an important part. The endurance/payload combination of the ScanEagle is unmatched for a vehicle of this size, according to Boeing. Moreover, it was the first small UAV to have an inertially stabilized sensor turret. One operator can control the vehicle and payload in flight; “no advanced degrees or additional certifications are needed to use the ScanEagle,” according to Insitu. In 2007 it became the first small UAV to offer a heavy fuel engine option, claimed Insitu, when a German two-stroke lawnmower engine was adapted to run on JP5.

Just four feet long and with a 10-foot wingspan, ScanEagle is launched from a pneumatic wedge catapult. It can fly for more than 20 hours at up to 16,000 feet, but is often operated at 2,000 to 3,000 feet where its size and low noise still makes it “truly nondetectable,” according to Edsall. Missions can be preprogrammed, or controlled in real-time from the fully transportable ground station by the operator via the uplink. Imagery from the electro-optical or infrared camera is returned by a 2.4-GHz downlink. Unlike other shipborne UAVs that must be carefully flown into a net for recovery, this UAV is recovered by a “Skyhook” system where the wing is snagged by a rope hanging from a 50-foot pole.

But it was a land-based application that gave Insitu its big break. The ScanEagle went to war in Iraq in 2004 with the U.S. Marine Corps. They logged more than 4,000 hours in the first year of operations. The Marines noted the high quality of the imagery, which they used to call in air strikes against insurgents attacking their patrols. They noted that the ScanEagle can fly for much longer than the Pioneer UAV that they also operated.

Australia and Canada both chose the ScanEagle to support their soldiers deployed to the ISAF in Afghanistan. “Although Kandahar is a difficult environment, we can fly there for 12 hours and for eight hours in the high mountains,” Edsall noted. Previously, the Canadians operated the Spehrwehr system, but in the summer season this UAV could fly only in the cool hours around dawn, he added.

In 2005, the U.S. Navy started operating the UAV from ships deployed to the Middle East and elsewhere. To meet naval requirements, an automatic identification system (AIS) and a mode-C transponder were added. In a well publicized incident last April, imagery from a ScanEagle flying from the U.S.S. Bainbridge helped rescue the captain of that ship after he was held hostage by Somali pirates. The ScanEagle has now operated from 15 different ship classes.

Last year, Insitu announced the development of a larger UAV called the Integrator. The twin-boom design is powered by an 8-hp reciprocating engine, the mtow is tripled to 135 pounds and the wingspan is increased by six feet, to 16 feet. It has a dedicated, “plug-and-play” payload bay and provision for a datalink in the wingtips. The EO/IR ball turret can be retained, if required. The Integrator will compete for the U.S. Navy’s STU-S requirement, which the ScanEagle is already meeting on an interim basis. A new version of the pneumatic launcher has been developed for the heavier Integrator, but is still compatible with the ScanEagle. The new UAV can be captured by the “Skyhook,” but Insitu is offering the option of a landing gear if a small runway is available for recovery.

Also last year, Insitu set up an Asia-Pacific subsidiary in Australia to market these UAVs in the region, and to develop new payloads for the Australian Defence Forces.
Meanwhile, the smaller ScanEagle continued to log new achievements in 2009 including:

• demonstration of control from a Boeing Wedgetail airborne early warning aircraft via a Satcom link and a ground station relay;

• a potential $250 million contract to fly for the U.S. Special Operations Command;

• development of a compressed carriage version designed for box launch from ships or from aircraft, carrying lethal submunitions;

• introduction of the NightEagle version with a cooled medium-wave infrared sensor in a larger nose. Endurance is reduced, but higher resolution imagery and 24-hour operation is made possible;

• demonstration of hand off of control from a vessel to a land-based ground station;

• integration of L3’s Bandit digital datalink, which offers advanced encryption of imagery and compatibility with the smaller ROVER 4 and 5 ground receivers; and
• passing the milestone of 250,000 hours in service over Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last June, Boeing created a new Unmanned Airborne Systems (UAS) division, but presumably it will not fully integrate Insitu into the new setup. To date, Insitu’s cost structure has remained “outside of Boeing overheads,” according to the company. Speaking just before the creation of the new division, Edsall noted that “it would not be easy to merge with a Boeing-size company.”