Off Beat: Hanks film features use of locally made technology

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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Some locally made technology is getting a shout-out in one of the year's most acclaimed films.

The film is "Captain Phillips." Tom Hanks stars as the title character, who was abducted by pirates after they seized his container ship off the coast of Somalia in 2009.

Holding Richard Phillips hostage, the pirates commandeered one of his ship's lifeboats and headed for shore. The technology is the ScanEagle. It's an unmanned aircraft manufactured by Insitu, based in Southwest Washington and the Columbia Gorge.

The U.S. Navy used ScanEagle drones during its rescue operation.

The unmanned vehicle can provide real-time video with an optical camera or an infrared night-vision system. Less than 4 feet long and with a wingspan of 10 feet, the ScanEagle can be launched from a ship.

When the Navy's guided missile destroyer USS Bainbridge arrived, it launched ScanEagles to provide surveillance of the lifeboat. The "Captain Phillips" script mentions the drone, including an order to "Deploy ScanEagle."

The unmanned aircraft doesn't get a lot of screen time, but there is a wide aerial shot showing the drone flying over the lifeboat containing Phillips and his captors.

The standoff ended — SPOILER ALERT! — when Navy SEALs snipers killed three pirates.

One of the actual ScanEagles used in the 2009 rescue operation -- No. 678 -- is back in the Northwest. Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, donated it to The Museum of Flight in Seattle in October 2012.

Ted Huetter, museum spokesman, noted that a drone shown on "Captain Phillips" is No. 678.

There's another connection between the rescue operation and the museum, by the way. The ScanEagle display now includes something from the three snipers: three empty shell casings.


Off Beat lets members of The Columbian news team step back from our newspaper beats to write the story behind the story, fill in the story or just tell a story.