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Ready for Takeoff Part 4: The Military Connection

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 18, 2011

The changes McGeer came up with to attract the tuna industry also suited the military. Steve Sliwa, a college friend McGeer brought in to run Insitu’s business side, was soon steering the company into a closer alliance with Boeing for defense work. McGeer’s SeaScan became the ScanEagle, a 40-pound surveillance drone. During the Battle of Fallujah in 2004, the ScanEagle spotted would-be assailants and sent real-time video to troops on the ground. Military demand rose rapidly. There are now 18 ScanEagles aloft at any moment, according to Insitu, mostly in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the company is the largest employer in the Columbia River Gorge.  The boast sometimes heard around town is that the rival Predator costs millions and works for generals, while a ScanEagle costs about $100,000 and works for gunnery sergeants.

The ScanEagle carries no weapons, but its camera helps target military strikes, and videos sent back to Insitu sometimes showed Iraqis being engulfed in flames. McGeer struggled with what he was seeing, and after losing a bitter boardroom confrontation, he quit the company in 2005. Three years later, Boeing purchased Insitu for about $400 million. According to von Flotow, he and McGeer split about 10 percent of the total. McGeer remains conflicted about it. “If you’re a dead Iraqi,” he says, “you might not think it worked out all that well.”

It’s a sentiment that echoes around the gorge, but quietly. Between them, Hood River and Bingen are home to fewer than 8,000 people, and neighbors inevitably run into one another at Brian’s Pourhouse or the Wednesday night Secret Salsa dance club. Nobody wants to blame the conduct of war on neighbors who build the hardware. “It would be like blaming a bank teller for the financial crisis,” says one local who works in the industry. Over a pint of a local brown ale, even a peace activist, retired attorney Susan Crowley, allows herself a sense of local pride in the idea of “boys having fun on the farm inventing things.” But toward the bottom of the pint, she adds, “I think they would certainly like to do things other than killing people, or assisting in killing people.” Von Flotow acknowledges that “nobody’s happy about it.” Then he adds: “Most engineering nerds are basically apolitical.”

The question everyone asks is how quickly unmanned technology can make the leap into the civilian market. The potential seems limitless—handling routine monitoring of pipelines and power lines, for instance, or gathering geomagnetic data about natural resources (a job that entails flying hundreds of miles in a straight line, at low altitude, then moving 50 yards over and flying straight back). Drones could help farmers monitor crops in distant fields, allow developers to perform simple construction jobs in remote or difficult locations, or enable environmentalists to spot polluters.

But these applications face major regulatory issues.

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