Some juicy details in article about Insitu, ScanEagle and founder rivalries

Here's an excerpt from an article in Willamette Week, a Portland weekly. It's a mix of well reported details about the founders and clashes within the company, plus some clueless stuff about how drones are evil and kill people (Insitu UAVs are actually unarmed, something the reporter seems not to understand). Read the comments, too.


"With a successful 1998 flight from Newfoundland to Scotland on a gallon and a half of gas, Aerosonde became the first unmanned plane ever to cross the Atlantic.

The publicity stunt captured headlines. But McGeer never managed to sell more than a handful of the drones—despite some enthusiastic support from within the bureaucracies of national weather services around the world, they could not be swayed into buying.

“That was life,” von Flotow says. “When you’re running a little garage business—and there’s many such businesses—you’re always chasing the dream, and the dream never quite makes it into your grasp.”

The next opportunity at McGeer’s door came from the tuna industry, of all places.

Tuna companies track schools of the fish using helicopters. It’s expensive and dangerous work, and McGeer was told the industry would pay for a plane that could launch from a boat with a camera to do the job.

McGeer set to work designing a new unmanned plane he called the SeaScan.

Again with help from von Flotow, McGeer and five employees worked at a dizzying rate of invention to master the biggest technical hurdle—launching and retrieving the plane from the deck of a ship.

They came up with a 14-foot catapult that slingshots the plane into the air at more than 50 mph, then spent years perfecting and eventually patenting the so-called “sky hook” landing system, which lets the plane fly into a rope suspended from a pole.

With a maximum speed of about 90 mph, the SeaScan was the first unmanned plane able to deliver high-quality video footage. Like the Aerosonde, however, the SeaScan never found a successful market.

This time, it was terrorists who got in the way.

Just as the SeaScan prototype was being completed, the 9/11 attacks came. McGeer had already been in contact with Boeing and others in the defense industry for the better part of a year about possible military uses for SeaScan.

Now they left the tuna industry behind and went into high gear. But not without reservations.

“There were plenty of people who weren’t comfortable. But we went along with it,” McGeer says. “I took an ends-justify-the-means argument—that taking this money would allow me to get into the civilian market. But I was wrong. That never happened.”

Insitu underwent other rapid changes in 2001. McGeer called in Steve Sliwa, a friend he knew from their undergrad days at Princeton, to turn Insitu around. And coincidentally, the day before 9/11, the Boeing Co. first agreed to invest in Insitu."

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Comment by Taylor Cox on May 1, 2010 at 1:53am
This is a very inspiring article. I couldn't stop reading until I had read the whole thing. It's amazing how fast technology is advancing, who knows what a regular old guy like me could build in the future in the field of autonomous aeronautics. I highly suggest that everyone should read this article.

Moderator
Comment by Morli on May 1, 2010 at 2:01am
but don't forget to read all 37 comments too ,lot of people have things to say that we may or not agree.
Comment by Jeff Taylor on May 1, 2010 at 2:39am
The comment by 'ScamEagle' is particularly interesting for those who were ever interested in working at Insitu!
Comment by izo on May 1, 2010 at 5:50am
That FlexRotor plane is pretty interesting, i was intrigued with the size of propeller on the picture but then the article mentioned that is VTOL plane.
Comment by Jack Crossfire on May 1, 2010 at 12:55pm
Sounds like a typical large American business. If you don't like the cronyism, you can work for an Indian business until you drop or find someone with a lot of money & start your own.

If there wasn't a recent blip on the corporate news outlets about drones being evil, there wouldn't be ranting about them being evil. Humans just do what they're told.

The only problem is people in this business are a lot younger than us & all male, so if you're pushing 30 & not into being in an all male environment most of your life you might have a hard time.
Comment by Lew Payne on May 1, 2010 at 9:25pm
Does anyone know when a hobby store will start carrying the FlexRotor's collective pitch mechanism on their shelves? I'm having a hard time locating an assembly that works the way theirs does, and can be easily adapted to a drone similar to theirs.

Moderator
Comment by Morli on May 2, 2010 at 12:31am
May be never ,but do you think a heli main rotor head ( flybar less) will help ? Flexrotor has custom rotor/prop assembly with static spinner(which houses some the electronic). What are you working on.
Comment by jonny on May 2, 2010 at 1:01pm
I could be wrong, but I thought Maynard Hill's plane was the first unmanned aircraft to cross the pond?
Comment by Lew Payne on May 2, 2010 at 2:50pm
I'd just like to experiment with changing pitch at varying RPM's (for a gas plane, not heli). Things like automatic tuning for different situations, such as stealth (low noise) mode (via on-board sound and vibration sensors), high efficiency mode (least amount of gas consumption while maintaining altitude), high speed mode (maximum thrust), etc. Just things you normally can't vary or tinker with from a ground station. I think profiling an engine based on these types of criteria would be interesting.

Moderator
Comment by Morli on May 2, 2010 at 3:19pm
yes Lew , I got it first time too. Since the blade in flexrotor is no smaller than a 90 heli blade , I thought loudly that we can try to do is use nitro Helli rotor head mechanism, lock down the cyclic and use pitch control to do a variable pitch control mechanism for Prop in a plane. This might be easy way to start R & D for what you want instead of milling the whole unit from scratch. There will be bit of work for sure. I have saved few heli heads for this work too :)). cheers

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