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Boeing ScanEagle makes first autonomous flight

Insitu Group of Bingen is back in the news

The Insitu Group of Bingen was back in the news last week.

That's because the ScanEagle, a long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle Insitu is developing for Boeing, successfully made its first autonomous flight last Thursday, June 20, at Boeing's Boardman test facility in eastern Oregon.

The prototype unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV for short) took off via a catapult and flew a pre-programmed course at a maximum altitude of 1,500 feet.

During the 45-minute flight, ScanEagle completed a number of test points using the Global Positioning System.

The test team also demonstrated the ability to make real-time updates to the flight plan from the ground station.

The UAV was retrieved using the patented SkyHook technique, in which the ScanEagle latches onto a rope hanging from a 30-foot high pole.

"ScanEagle's milestone autonomous flight is a great example of the breadth of projects of our Unmanned Systems organization," said Charlie Guthrie, Boeing Unmanned Systems director of rapid prototyping and advanced concepts. "We are melding Insitu's expertise and unique capabilities with the best of Boeing to provide an autonomous, low-cost, long-endurance UAV for a wide range of potential customers."

Guthrie added that Boeing has the expertise and resources to succeed in the unmanned market, and foresees both commercial and military applications for small, pilotless planes.

The four-foot long aircraft -- which has a 10-foot wingspan, weighs 33 pounds when fully loaded and can fly up to 68 knots -- was built using systems automation, integration, communications and payload technologies applicable to a variety of Boeing unmanned systems.

"Insitu is very happy to be working with Boeing because of the technologies and capabilities they bring to the table," said Steve Sliwa, Insitu's president and chief executive officer.

He added: "(Boeing) not only makes the UAV system much more robust, but will enhance the value to potential customers."

According to the Seattle Times, Boeing officials envision a market of more than $1 billion for the ScanEagle over the next 20 years, at a cost of less than $100,000 per plane.

Times aerospace reporter David Bowermaster reported on June 12 that the partners "hope to secure their first customers for ScanEagle by the end of the year and to begin deliveries as early as 2003."

Sliwa said Insitu, based at the Port of Klickitat's Bingen Point, initiated discussions with Boeing last spring about a joint project.

Negotiations intensified after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. and culminated in the signing of a 15-month agreement in February under which Insitu agreed to design and build the ScanEagle using Boeing technologies.

ScanEagle is based on Insitu's SeaScan aircraft, which is designed to be launched from and recovered by ships.

Insitu was founded in 1994 by Tad McGeer, an aeronautical engineer with degrees from Princeton and Stanford universities and a background in robotics, with the initial aim of developing unmanned aircraft for use in weather forecasting.

Four years later, Insitu, in partnership with University of Washington, demonstrated the potential of these types of vehicles when it coordinated the first UAV transatlantic flight: a 2,000-mile trip from Newfoundland, Canada, to Scotland that used only 1.5 gallons of gasoline.

That UAV, the Laima of the Aerosonde generation, hangs in the Great Gallery of Seattle's Museum of Flight.


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