What are ScanEagle drones? A look at the latest weapon in U.S. aid to Ukraine

A drone being launched.
An Insitu ScanEagle unmanned aircraft is ready for launch at the airport in Arlington, Ore., in 2013. (Don Ryan/AP)

LONDON — As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine reached its sixth-month mark, the Biden administration last week announced a $3 billion military assistance. It is the largest package the U.S. has created since the war began in February.

Its aim is to build up Ukraine’s defense systems so that it can "defend itself over the long term," a statement from the White House said. It added: "The United States of America is committed to supporting the people of Ukraine as they continue the fight to defend their sovereignty."

Included in the package are ScanEagle drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that can travel at low altitudes for a long period of time — 15,000 feet for more than 24 hours. The UAV is built by Insitu, a Boeing subsidiary, and is used for reconnaissance.

The 15 UAVs will be used to guide Ukrainian artillery on the battlefield. Unlike larger aircraft, the UAV does not need a runway for takeoff. This means that targeting Ukrainian airfields will have little effect on the drone operations.

The ScanEagle drones have been around for a while. According to Insitu, they have been used by the U.S. Marine Corps since 2004 and the U.S. Navy since 2005. They have maritime roots: They were originally used to spot fish and track storms.

A close-up of the front of a drone, printed with the words: ScanEagle-A.
A ScanEagle drone on display at an air show. (Balint Porneczi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Although the drone isn’t used to directly attack enemy positions, the ScanEagle provides valuable real-time imagery for the weapons that are. Since Ukraine halted the main thrust of Russian forces early in its invasion, much of the war has been transformed into grinding artillery vs. artillery battles along the front lines. Drones like the ScanEagle help give that artillery an edge.

"They’re reconnaissance UAVs that will be used to fix the position of Russian artillery," Matthew Schmidt, the director of international affairs and an associate professor of national security at the University of New Haven in Connecticut, told Yahoo News. "It’s critical that Ukraine neutralize enemy artillery because it’s the number one advantage Russia has on the battlefield."

He added: "Any offensive depends on it."

The U.S. and its NATO allies have sent other UAVs to Ukraine as well — including drones armed with weapons. In March, the White House announced a military support package that included 100 Switchblade drones, which are designed to fly into their targets and explode.