Commercial Satellites to Cover U.S. Weather Data Gap
Inadequate and delayed weather forecasts have a widespread impact on human life, the environment and the global economy. As existing national satellite assets age, the U.S. runs the risk of losing its reliable supply of data necessary for accurate forecasts and early warnings for extreme weather events. By launching a constellation of commercial satellites equipped with GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO), a highly precise technique for collecting atmospheric soundings from space, PlanetiQ intends to bridge the gap in government-owned resources and ensure an uninterrupted stream of accurate weather and climate data. The commercial satellite imagery industry has gone through a similar successful evolution since the launch of the first commercial Earth observation satellite in 1999.
PlanetiQ President and Chief Executive Officer Anne Hale Miglarese has over 28 years of experience in the geospatial industry, in both the private sector and government agencies. GeoDataPoint asked Migliarese about the current situation and what to expect going forward.
What is the significance of the expected gap in satellite weather and climate data, globally and for the U.S. in particular?
|Caption: PlanetiQ plans to launch a constellation of commercial weather satellites to provide data used by major forecast models such as the U.S. Global Forecast System (GFS). This image shows a GFS forecast for precipitable water and sea level pressure. (Source: NOAA)|
Several government reports have detailed the potential impacts of the expected gap, including the report by the NOAA Independent Review Team that warned a gap “can have catastrophic national consequences” and will “significantly degrade the current high quality forecasting capability upon which we have become dependent. Additionally, a gap can result in failure to accurately forecast severe weather events such as hurricanes, snowstorms/blizzards and tornadoes.”
It’s important to note, however, that the gap is but one of several factors driving the commercialization of satellite weather data. Augmenting government satellite systems with commercial data not only will reduce the risk and impacts of gaps in governmental data this decade and beyond, but also will reduce the costs and technical risks associated with government programs, while making the global observing system more resilient and accelerating innovation in satellites, sensor technology and data collection.
Please explain the government’s policy of not purchasing some kinds of data and/or services from commercial companies, and what has been the impact of that policy?
Past resistance to embracing new constructs for acquisition of weather satellite data has contributed to the current situation in which the U.S. faces a gap in critical weather forecast data and is launching yesterday’s technology today. As we’ve seen in the areas of satellite imagery, satellite communications and space transportation, allowing industry to augment government systems and programs increases the supply of mission-critical data and services, increases innovation in those data and services, and reduces costs to the government and taxpayers. In fact, just recently, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said he envisions the Department of Defense relying entirely on the private sector for satellite communication services.
Why is the acquisition of weather data treated differently than satellite imagery by the government?
The situation with satellite weather data today is remarkably similar to that of satellite imagery in the early 2000s.Back then, major delays and cost overruns in the next generation of US intelligence satellites, called the Future Imagery Architecture, threatened a gap in satellite imagery to support the warfighter and other US interests abroad. To mitigate this threat, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency partnered with the private sector by awarding imagery purchase contracts to commercial providers. The result was a reliable and affordable supply of high-quality imagery for both military and civilian use, and a robust U.S. commercial industry that is still growing today and has injected thousands of high-paying jobs into the U.S. economy.
We now see the same dynamics with satellite weather data—existing satellites are reaching the end of their design life, replacements have been delayed and gone over budget, and the nation now faces a potential gap in data that is critical to providing accurate forecasts and early warnings. A new commercial weather satellite industry is ready to step in and augment government systems with data that is less expensive and can be available sooner than from government systems. One notable difference from the commercialization of satellite imagery is that we are not asking for any money up front. Investors are so enthusiastic about the market for commercial weather data that they are willing to fund the development and deployment of the systems as long as key public and private customers around the world sign Letters of Interest demonstrating a willingness to purchase data once available.
Some would argue that weather data is different from imagery in that it supports the public good of a weather forecast, and thus should remain solely governmental. But much like the benefits we’ve seen with the commercialization of other similar industries that were once government monopsonies (e.g., satellite imagery, satellite telecommunications and now space transportation), a commercial industry for satellite weather data has the potential to increase data, drive innovation, lower costs, and ultimately improve the weather forecast much faster than the government could accomplish alone.
To clear up one possible misconception, the use of commercial satellite data would not cause governments to charge for the weather forecast. Rather, it would simply augment and improve the observing system that generates the weather forecast, much as we already see with the purchase of commercially available ground-based data.
What steps has PlanetiQ taken to change the government policy about weather data and open up commercial opportunities?
We have had numerous meetings with NOAA, the current Administration, members of Congress, and forecast agencies worldwide. The vast majority of those we’ve met with have been extremely supportive and see the benefits of the commercial approach to the world’s weather enterprise and to taxpayers around the globe. In the U.S., NOAA purchases ground-based weather data today, including mesonet data and lightning strikes, so this is not so much of a policy change as it is a culture change.
The good news is that our team played a key role in the commercialization of satellite imagery, working it from both the government and industry sides. So we are using those lessons learned to help the U.S. and other governments navigate the transition in the case of satellite weather data. Our approach is to co-create and innovate with government partners in a way that supports government requirements, fulfills the needs of data users worldwide, and enables business models.
What major developments do you see in the next 12-24 months that will impact commercial weather data being purchased by government organizations?
I believe the convergence of several factors will move governments to begin to partner with commercial providers in that timeframe: 1) As the risk of a data gap gets closer, governments will take more actions to mitigate the risk and impact of a gap; 2) In this new era of constrained budgets, governments and their legislative bodies are increasingly looking toward new approaches that can save money without sacrificing quality; 3) Advances in modeling and computing power, in both the public and private sectors, are creating a demand for more data and faster delivery of data at a lower cost; 4) In the U.S., passage of The Weather Forecasting Improvement Act would direct the Department of Commerce (within which NOAA resides) to submit a strategy to enable the procurement of commercial weather data. This is not imperative but it could help accelerate the process.
What is PlanetiQ’s high-level vision for addressing the issue of weather forecasting, space weather prediction and climate monitoring?
PlanetiQ satellites will provide a minimum of 18,000 occultations per day—which translates to more than 8 million observations per day of temperature, pressure, water vapor and electron density—using a proven satellite technique called GPS Radio Occultation (GPS-RO). These are high-precision measurements with high vertical resolution that not only have tremendous value to the weather forecast relative to data from other sources, but also help calibrate and improve the forecast impact of other types of satellite data. GPS-RO is an especially attractive data set to commercialize because it is less expensive to produce than other satellite data—since the satellites and sensors are small, lightweight and have low power requirements, and because it leverages the existing constellations of GPS satellites—yet has a greater impact.
Importantly, we will deliver data to users in virtually real-time, with a latency of less than 3 minutes from collection, by relaying data via existing satellite communications systems. This low latency is critical to weather forecasting requirements and especially forecasting and alerting for space weather disturbances, which without proper warning can damage power grids and critical communication systems. The satellite data link also eliminates the need for expensive dedicated ground stations seen with traditional government systems.
Because we will refresh the constellation every few years, we will have the opportunity to constantly innovate with new and improved satellites and sensors, informed by customer needs and the latest advances in science and technology.