Two engineers formed Insitu to build a better unmanned aerial vehicle to find schools of tuna out over the deep sea. But then Boeing and the war in Iraq came along.

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Alejandro Pita’s career path to Insitu and then Boeing says a lot about the unmanned-aircraft business.

An Argentinean-born naval architect and engineer, in the 1990s he was helping big fishing companies improve on their standard approach to finding tuna — roaming the ocean by helicopter from a fishing ship.

He connected with engineer Tad McGeer, who was developing an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) originally intended to fly over the deep ocean and stream back meteorological data.

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In 1998, when Insitu was a three-person company, it debuted its original SeaScan, launched by a catapult and caught with a hook when it got back to the ship.

Boeing got interested in 2002, formed a partnership and gave some money. More came from venture capitalists — a total of about $50 million, though Insitu still had $23 million unspent when Boeing bought the entire company last fall for $400 million.

The war in Iraq changed everything. In 2004, the First Marine Expeditionary force needed a UAV for surveillance, and through Boeing turned to Insitu.

Schools of tuna were no longer the priority. The ScanEagle had notched up only 300 flight hours but deployed to Iraq in less than three months.

“We had other fish to catch,” said Pita. “We went there. We helped (the Marines) in the siege of Fallujah. We’re still there.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, ScanEagles are spending 10,000 combat hours a month in the air, soon to go up to 12,000. Flying at an altitude of 3,000 feet, a person on the ground can neither hear nor see it, but its camera can zoom in to produce images magnified 36 times.

The ScanEagle operates autonomously, following directions entered by an operator at a computer station outside the immediate combat area. It can be instructed to circle a specific target area, and is programmed to return to base if it loses communication.

“We don’t fly it,” said Pita. “It’s a robot. It flies itself.”

Many Insitu customers, including the Marines, the Navy, and the Australian and Canadian defense forces, do not buy the hardware. They contract with Boeing to provide the video they need, and joint teams of Boeing and Insitu employees launch and retrieve the ScanEagles and man the operator stations.

“We are in the video business,” said Pita.

This year Insitu has grown from 400 to 600 employees. Many of the operators hired are former military personnel.

A new, bigger version of the aircraft, named Integrator, was also on display at the Paris Air Show this week.

It can carry heavier payloads, such as radio relay equipment. That makes it an ear in the sky that can, for example, provide radio contact between Special Forces soldiers who are separated by a high mountain ridge.

Within Boeing, Vice President Chris Chadwick now heads a new unmanned systems division, with Insitu seen as a seed for further technology.

“One of the things Boeing has done with Insitu is let them alone, so they can continue innovation,” said Chadwick.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com