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Maker Of Military Drones In Columbia River Gorge Sees Great Potential In Civil Uses

The Boeing Co.
File photo of a ScanEagle unmanned aerial vehicle made by Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing.

Managers at Insitu, a military drone maker headquartered in Bingen, Washington say they see great potential for civil and commercial uses for their best-known aircraft.

But realizing that promise requires the federal government to finalize rules for drones in the national airspace.

Insitu Inc., a subsidiary of Boeing, makes the ScanEagle, a 40-pound, catapult-launched surveillance drone capable of staying aloft for 20 hours. Until now, the main customers have been the U.S. and allied governments. But now the Columbia Gorge manufacturer has a civil and commercial program, which Charlton Evans manages.

"While there are many estimates on the potential, all of them are large — in the billions of dollars,” he said.

Industries where Evans sees opportunity include oil and gas, railway, pipeline and power line monitoring, mining, farming and security.

But first, the Federal Aviation Administration needs to write rules and prove out the technology for how manned aircraft and drones stay out of each other's way.

"The entire system is built on the assumption that the pilot in the aircraft can see other aircraft and therefore avoid them,” Evans said. “That is the hold up. The FAA is part of that. But they have a process to go through."

That will probably take several more years.

Evans said commercial operations could add significantly to the company's employment total, which now stands around 800.

Insitu has already found its first commercial customer. ConocoPhillips hired Insitu last year to scout for icebergs, whales and other stuff around Arctic oil exploration operations. Evans said the Smithsonian Institution has asked to get a ScanEagle from that job due to its historic value as making the first authorized commercial flight by an unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace.

The FAA made an exception to open the airspace of northern Alaska for commercial drone flying due to its remote Arctic location and the low likelihood of conflicts with other users.

Evans and several Insitu colleagues spoke about their company's ambitions at the fall conference of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's Cascade Chapter.

Correspondent Tom Banse is an Olympia-based reporter with more than three decades of experience covering Washington and Oregon state government, public policy, business and breaking news stories. Most of his career was spent with public radio's Northwest News Network, but now in semi-retirement his work is appearing on other outlets.