GILLIAM COUNTY, OREGON: This isolated test site in rural Oregon is where Boeing subsidiary Insitu takes its drones “to torture them,” said site manager Jerry McWithey. Temperates soar to 110 degrees in summer and plummet to 10 degrees — with 50-knot winds — in winter. The hot-and-cold ordeal the drones go through is a microcosm of the problems facing the company as a whole as the defense spending boom goes bust.

The era of exponential growth is over. When Insitu was founded back in 1998, it had just four people and a plan to build small numbers of small unmanned air vehicles for weather research. Shortly after 9/11, in February 2002, the start-up partnered with aerospace behemoth Boeing to develop military recon UAVs, and its ScanEagle drone (click here for video) first saw action over Fallujah in 2004. Keep reading →

GILLIAM COUNTY, OREGON: Sometimes in this business, you get to see something that’s just plain neat. In this case, it was the ScanEagle (one word), a mini-drone built by Boeing subsidiary Insitu.

[Click here for more about Insitu’s uncertain prospects as defense spending declines].

ScanEagle is a UAV so compact it launches from a short rail, “lands” by snagging on a wire, and can be carried back to its box by a single man. (Really. Just watch the video). Reporters from Breaking Defense and other publications got to watch the whole process at Insitu’s test site in rural Oregon.

We’ve written before about the tactical logic behind the unusual landing methods of the ScanEagle and its larger, but still fairly portable successor, the Integrator, a new Insitu drone now being modified to meet military requirements as what the Navy and Marine Corps will call the RQ-21. Whereas the 44-pound ScanEagle can carry just one sensor at a time — either an ordinary video camera or one of two kinds of infra-red sensor; you can swap them one for another in a few hours. The 135-lb Integrator can carry several sensors at once. It’s the Integrator that the company hopes will carry its business into the post-Afghanistan War era.

Like many wars, this past decade of conflict has inspired a great deal of technological innovation amidst the human suffering. Now the challenge for companies like Insitu is to wean themselves from the flood of wartime funding, find a place in tight military budgets, and explore new opportunities in the civilian sector. Which, of course, is one of the reasons Boeing showed this to us.

[Full disclosure: Boeing paid for travel, hotel rooms and meals.]

NAVAL AIR STATION PATUXENT RIVER, MARYLAND: Most drones land the same way manned airplanes do, on a runway. But what if you don’t have a runway? Well, with an unmanned aerial vehicle called the RQ-21, Marines can string up a cable and snag the drone out of the sky.

The military and unmanned aerial vehicle maker Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, pioneered the “skyhook” technique with a small drone called Scan Eagle that has seen wide service in Afghanistan and Iraq. But now they’re scaling that technology up with the larger and more capable Insitu Integrator, being developed for the Marines and Navy under the designation RQ-21A. Scan Eagle weighs 44 pounds, about as much as the average four-year-old boy; Integrator weighs 135 lbs, as much as a 14-year-old. That 300 percent increase in weight is literally a stretch for the crane-and-cable mechanism that snatches the drone out of the air in mid-flight. Keep reading →