Rent a drone. Things became so bad in Afghanistan and Iraq—last time that is, before the surge and before the sausage factory could churn out enough official drones—that the military started renting them. Pixel-by-the-hour, they called it: Contractors would own them and operate them.

ScanEagle, manufactured by Insitu (now a part of Boeing) became a favorite. It was first flown with Marines in Iraq in 2004; in 2009, the Pentagon and Boeing signed a $250 million fee-for-service contract. Small and hardy and with almost 24 hour endurance, ScanEagle could fly the perimeter of air bases or scout ahead of special operations, beaming back day and night pictures, electro-optical or infrared. With a pneumatic catapult launcher and Skyhook near-vertical recovery system (much like the old Pioneer), it could truly be operated from almost anywhere, from the middle of a desert or in the mountains or even from a small ship. And it is launch-and-forget, operating an autonomous mission without the need for an active operator at the joystick.

At the height of Afghanistan and Iraq operations, six “systems” comprising 12 drones each were deployed in Iraq in support of the Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy, and special operators. More than 30 other systems were operational in Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, and other nations—Australia, Canada, Poland and UAE—contracted for them in Afghanistan as well. Though the boots on the ground officially went away, the appetite for surveillance never diminshed. ScanEagle stayed.

In this year’s defense budget, ScanEagle is filling the naval special operations requirement for a medium endurance unmanned aircraft system (MEUAS), flying from land and from naval vessels. Flown by the the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, ScanEagle is also in use to track whale migrations. In fact, ScanEagle is based on Insitu’s SeaScan miniature robotic aircraft developed for the commercial fishing industry.

The gasoline-powered drone features narrow 10-foot wings that allow the 40-pound vehicle to reach altitudes as high as 19,000 feet, distances of more than 60 nautical miles, and normal flight endurance of about 18 hours per mission. ScanEagle has an inertially stabilized camera turret inside its nose, and a shoebox-size “NanoSAR” synthetic aperture radar has also been demonstrated.

By 2012, many of the duties undertaken by ScanEagle transitioned to the Aerosonde 4.7, another rent-a-drone. At its size, ScanEagle could only carry one camera at a time, so the day or night cameras needed to be switched out, while Aerosonde (at almost twice the weight) can carry both cameras and has a third bay for other surveillance.

But the ScanEagle continues to fly, and customers now include the military forces of Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Singapore, Spain and the United Kingdom. Insitu announced the ScanEagle 2 in 2014; it includes upgrades such as expanded payload options, an improved propulsion system, a fully digital video system for improved image quality, features to reduce electromagnetic interference, and an improved navigation system.

Fun Facts About ScanEagle:

  • According to the Air Force, ScanEagle has “flown more than 456,000 combat hours and 57,000 sorties supporting ground and air forces in theater.” In the same paragraph, they claim they own one ScanEagle, assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command. It was bought in 2006 through the Warfighter Rapid Acquisition Program, the military’s petty-cash toy fund.
  • ScanEagle reached new heights (of notoriety) in 2012 when Iran claimed it had “captured” a U.S. ScanEagle conducting surveillance operations. Since then, rumors have spread about the mass production of ScanEagle clones, suicide drones, and a modified ScanEagle handed over to Russia in 2013.
  • According to a Congressional report, the military, almost entirely through contractors, currently employs 122 ScanEagles—all by the Navy.
  • This video does a great job of showing why ScanEagle is actually a pretty user friendly UAV—it only requires one person for assembly, preparation and launch:

[Second photo courtesy of the Department of Defense, all other photos courtesy of Insitu.]