One of the warships the U.S. sent to join Task Force 151, the international anti-piracy patrol off Somalia, is carrying a Scan Eagle UAV system. This has proved very valuable in patrolling a large area searching for pirate activity.
For the past five years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been using and perfecting this lightweight UAV, equipped with high resolution day and night video cameras. Scan Eagle was originally designed to assist for fishing boats finding schools of tuna. Over the last six years, these Scan Eagle UAVs have spent over 50,000 hours in the air, and flown nearly 5,000 sorties. About two thirds of this was for U.S. Marine Corps units. But the navy was also encouraged by its tests, enough so to equip the destroyer USS Mahan, with the UAV before the ship went off to join Task Force 151..
The ScanEagle UAV weighs 40 pounds, has a ten foot (three meter) wingspan and uses a new video technology (PixonVision), that provides greater resolution than other video cameras. This makes it easier for the UAV, flying over the ocean, to spot the small speed boats that the pirates use to stalk, attack and board merchant ships.
The ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight, and fly as high as 16,000 feet. The aircraft carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the ship its controller is on. The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a fifty foot pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship. Each ScanEagle costs about $100,000, and is still widely used by commercial fishing, ocean survey and research ships.