Americas Military

Washington’s $10B Unmanned Industry


By Rick Anderson

Tad McGeer, multimillionaire godfatherof the state’s drone industry, was heading home the other day from his office in the rain-swept Columbia River Gorge town of White Salmon when he picked up his cell phone and dialed a Seattle reporter. In an earlier e-mail exchange, the reporter had asked about the growth of drone manufacturing in Washington, and McGeer had written back, “Are you jumping on the hype bandwagon, or do you want to discuss reality?”

The hype he referred to was the drone-phobia that hovers over any discussion of unmanned flying vehicles, from the small model-sized planes that buzz Seattle neighborhoods to the multi-ton aerial robots that are used in war and prowl Washington’s northern border. To McGeer’s dismay, the public doesn’t seem to like them much—the airborne snoops fly right up and peek through your window, don’t they?—even though civilian drone use is growing and the Pentagon is expanding its drone air force, including four bases in the Evergreen State.

Assured by the reporter that reality rocks, McGeer agrees to call. “I’ve got about a 20-minute drive,” said the 56-year-old Stanford aeronautical engineer, steering towards Hood River, Oregon, across the old two-lane toll bridge stretching three-quarters of a mile over the Columbia. He’s the pioneering entrepreneur behind the Washington-made unmanned aircraft systems—UAS, as they’re know in the industry—that linger over the desert and mountain terrain of Afghanistan in search of U.S. combat intelligence and terrorist targets. The 44-pound, gas-powered military drone he named the ScanEagle is also flown by a dozen other nations, and while most are used for war reconnaissance, some countries employ the ScanEagle for domestic security, as Japanese self-defense forces do, or to spy on drug cartels, as the Colombian military does.

“As I drive,” says McGeer, in a plucky mood, “we can entertain each other.” The man who developed the concept of passive dynamic walking—a principle used in the movement of legged robots—doesn’t duck interviews, but picks his moments. In part, McGeer wants to discuss his former business partner, the Boeing Co.—its corporate lobbying and, in particular, Boeing’s role in helping send his little drone off to war.

McGeer founded his company in 1992 in his Silicon Valley garage, then moved the aerial startup to the Gorge in 1994. He named his business Insitu, a title derived from a Latin phrase meaning “in position.” In McGeer’s variation, it was “chosen because we wanted to make measurements in situ in the atmosphere—measurements you can trust.”

Those were the halcyon days for the U.S. drone industry: Largely out of the public eye, companies like Insitu developed bigger and faster UAS for wider application. By 2001, McGeer had come up with a factory-produced line of flying robots featuring a 10-foot wingspan and a top speed of 92 m.p.h., launched by a pneumatic catapult. Scientists used the original versions of the ScanEagle for geological surveys, and fishermen flew the machines to track schools of tuna.

We are honored at sUAS News to have Tad speaking at our show next month in SFC.

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