Boeing’s Best-Selling Aircraft Fits on Your Shoulder

(Wired)   The relatively tiny Scan Eagle family of UAVs may not bring in big bucks for Boeing, but they’re the best-selling aircraft in the aerospace giant’s fleet.

  • By Jason Paur Email Author
  • August 14, 2009  |
  • 2:22 am  |
  • Categories: Air Travel


The ubiquitous 737 airliner was for many years Boeing’s biggest seller, with more than 30 rolling off the assembly line at the south end of Lake Washington east of Seattle every month. But with the military expanding UAV operations at a rapid pace, unmanned aerial vehicles of all sizes are selling like hotcakes. Boeing is building more than 50 Scan Eagle UAVs a month.

The Scan Eagle was developed by Boeing subsidiary Insitu, which has been producing unmanned aircraft systems since 1994. The company made aviation history in 1998 when it followed Charles Lindbergh’s example by making the first transatlantic flight with a UAV. The company has produced more than 1,000 robotic aircraft that have flown more than 200,000 hours in Iraq and Afghanistan and performed weather and marine reconnaissance missions around the world.

The Lilliputian aircraft can be carried in a vehicle or boat and launched just about anywhere. Its compact size makes it a favorite of a wide range of customers from special forces to weather researchers.

The 44 pound airplane is equipped with high-resolution electro-optical and infrared scanning capabilities allowing it to perform day and night. With a wingspan of just over 10 feet and a 2-horsepower engine, the Scan Eagle can fly for more than 24 hours at a time.

Aviation Week reports Boeing’s production rate of the Scan Eagle stands at more than 50 per month. But before anybody thinks the nation’s largest exporter is going to ditch the commercial market — which is in the dumps these days — for model airplanes on steroids, keep in mind that the Scan Eagle doesn’t account for much on the bottom line. Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group says acquiring the UAV business is part of a strategy by Boeing to become a more-complete defense contractor.

“Boeing has been promoting itself as a net-centric player, somebody who is more about network capabilities rather than standalone platforms,” Aboulafia told

The Scan Eagle costs around $100,000 each, so the revenue they’ve generated so far doesn’t quite add up to half that of a single 777 airliner. But the UAV market is growing faster than manufacturers can keep up with. While planes such as the Predator or Global Hawk might get all of the attention, the smaller versions are also gaining popularity in both military and civilian roles because of their relatively low cost.

“In a lot of ways small UAVs have just as much in common with expendable munitions than they do with aircraft” Aboulafia says. “These things have a lot in common with systems that simply blow up that they’ve made thousands of per year.”

Thinking of many of the remote control airplanes we saw turn into piles of balsa kindling during our childhood, that seems like a fair comparison.

Photos: Insitu


A Scan Eagle is launched from a ship for a maritime mission.A Scan Eagle is launched from a ship for a maritime mission.

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