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The Weatherscout unmanned aerial vehicle lifts off its launch vehicle for a test flight Oct. 18.
The Weatherscout unmanned aerial vehicle lifts off its launch vehicle for a test flight Oct. 18. (Frank Whitman / Special to S&S)
The Weatherscout unmanned aerial vehicle lifts off its launch vehicle for a test flight Oct. 18.
The Weatherscout unmanned aerial vehicle lifts off its launch vehicle for a test flight Oct. 18. (Frank Whitman / Special to S&S)
Controller Jake Anderson, in car, and Ryan Vu, manual pilot, both of Aerosonde, control the Weatherscout during a test flight at Northwest Field at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on Oct. 18.
Controller Jake Anderson, in car, and Ryan Vu, manual pilot, both of Aerosonde, control the Weatherscout during a test flight at Northwest Field at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, on Oct. 18. (Frank Whitman / Special to S&S)

Air Force officials on Guam last week completed a series of tests of the Weatherscout unmanned aerial vehicle, which may become the next tool for predicting typhoon behavior.

The tests were conducted from Andersen Air Force Base, which has been battered by dozens of typhoons over the years — including Supertyphoon Pongsona, which caused tens of million of dollars in damage in December 2002.

“The Air Force has a lot of lives and a lot of aircraft that can be saved if we have an early warning system in place,” said Andersen spokesman Lt. J.D. Griffin.

The Weatherscout, which weighs about 30 pounds and has a 9-foot wingspan, is designed to fly into typhoons and gather data. It can fly for 30 hours on less than two gallons of premium unleaded gasoline, giving it a range of about 2,000 miles, said Dan Fowler, operations engineer with Weatherscout manufacturer Aerosonde. Once in flight, it is navigated by global positioning system and controlled by satellite.

If the Weatherscout is put into operation, it can offer some important advantages over current forecasting tools. Satellite images, for example, lack critical data from the surface of the ocean. In some areas, WC-130s are flown into storms, an enormously expensive proposition — and a dangerous one, since human flight crews are on board.

The unmanned Weatherscout planes cost a relatively low $100,000 each and are able to fly much lower than WC-130s — 1,200 feet versus 10,000 feet. Officials say the aircraft is able to locate the center of the storm more accurately than satellites, which often are blocked by clouds, and can provide accurate readings from the periphery to the storm center as it flies through, while satellites can determine only lower wind speeds.

“Very little data [about the storms] is measured directly,” said Chip Guard, warning coordinator meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Guam. “This will give us a much better idea of the intensity of the storms.”

The testing that just wrapped up in Guam was to determine the viability of the Weatherscout system in conditions unique to Guam.

“We need to test in the environment where it’s going to be deployed,” said Capt. Robert LoMonaco of the Air Force Operational Testing and Evaluation Center Detachment 1 of Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. The unit is an independent evaluation agency contracted to conduct the test by Reconnaissance Systems Wing of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, which is responsible for the Weatherscout program.

During the testing period, the aircraft flew for more than 285 hours during 16 flights. The tests gauged how operations might be affected by Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the weather around Guam and other conditions in the area around the island.

Another area tested was how well the aircraft and the data it collects are able to assist the military’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center in Hawaii in predicting typhoon behavior and whether that data can be provided within a suitable time frame.

The next step is to review the data gathered from Weatherscout testing with the weather experts.

“We’ll work with the Joint Typhoon Warning Center and the Air Force Weather Agency; they actually will look at the raw weather data and they’ll crunch that all up,” LoMonaco said. “We will work with them to get that war-fighter perspective — how do they perceive what happened?”

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