Insitu marks one million hours

An RQ-21A Blackjack is manoeuvred on the flightdeck of amphibious transport ship USS Mesa Verde. (US Navy)

Unmanned aircraft systems company Insitu has notched up one million operational flight hours – 114 years – by its ScanEagle, Blackjack and Integrator platforms.

Insitu chief executive Ryan Hartman said the first operational mission, which started the clock, was for the US Marine Corps, and so too was the one millionth flight hour.

He gave no other details of the milestone mission other than it involved a Blackjack UAV engaged in a lengthy mission for a Marine Expeditionary Unit.

“It was in one of those deployments that a Blackjack was credited with flying the one millionth hour of an Insitu product,” he said.

In a media conference to mark this significant milestone and showcase Insitu achievements and capabilities, Hartman said there were many stories.

In 2010, a ScanEagle supported the rescue of Captain Richard Phillips and his crew of MV Maersk Alabama, hijacked by Somali pirates. In the subsequent movie, Phillips was played by Tom Hanks.

After another mission, one satisfied customer emailed: “I wish I could tell you where, I wish I could tell what, but your people, your products changed the course of history today.”

Hartman said he and his team watched the news closely trying to figure out what it was they contributed to.

“We have a pretty decent idea,” he said. He didn’t elaborate.

Insitu, now wholly owned by Boeing, started out in 1994, pioneering this new industry with what was then termed a “miniature robotic aircraft.”

In 1997, Insitu became the first company to fly a UAV across the Atlantic. Then the tuna industry expressed interest in using UAS to spot fish, prompting Insitu to develop the skyhook recovery system to enable aircraft launched from fishing boats to also be recovered.

Then the USMC used ScanEagle during the first battle of Fallujah. The Australian Army flew 45,000 hours on ScanEagle in Iraq and Afghanistan. The platform remains in the Australian Defence Force inventory, though now with the Navy.

A December 2007 image of 20th Surveillance and Target Aquisition Regiment personnel with two ScanEagles at Camp Holland in Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan. (Defence)

After starting out as a wholly military business, Insitu is looking to a 50-50 military-commercial split by 2025, moving strongly into the growing civil market for UAS.

“We stood up our commercial business a little over a year ago with a focus on taking the expertise that we have gained over what at the time was just over 900,000 operational flight hours and are applying that to our ability to support commercial customers around the world,” he said.

Andrew Duggan, managing director of Insitu Pacific in Brisbane, cited their work with Australia’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) in gaining acceptance for UAS operations in civil airspace.

He said that aimed to build up trust and demonstrate professional aviation capabilities to CASA.

“From that (we can) build a skillset and a toolset we can export to the rest of the world,” he said.

Insitu now operates in western Queensland for Shell and the Queensland Gas Corporation to survey their vast coal seam gas lease, an area of the size of the UK.

Duggan said someone in a vehicle could inspect maybe four or five wellheads in a day.

“By using UAS in that scenario we are able to inspect up to 100 wellheads per day with one aircraft and we can see that number increasing,” he said.

A ScanEagle launches from the flightdeck of HMAS Newcastle during operational evaluation trials in June. (Defence)