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Businesses ready to help feds improve weather forecasting


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Washington, August 2, 2015 | comments

It's a familiar scene: The weathermen call for eight inches of snow overnight, and the kids — bracing for a snow day — wake up and hardly see a flake on the ground.

A number of lawmakers want to fix that by turning to private companies to help the National Weather Service with its weather forecasting.

For decades, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees the weather service, has relied on "large, monolithic" and costly space-based satellites to collect weather data. That model soon may change.

By the end of 2016, three companies — Spire, PlanetiQ and GeoOptics — intend to launch their own space-based satellite constellations, and at least one other company, Tempus Global Data, will jump into the fray when it launches satellites in 2018.

Lawmakers, who have lamented cost overruns and delays with proposed NOAA satellites with fear of future data gaps, see great promise in the budding commercial sector. In May, the House passed the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2015, which calls on NOAA to release a set of standards by the end of the year for space-based commercial data.

In addition, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., added a provision to the bill that mandates the agency enter into a pilot contract by October 2016 with a "private-sector entity capable of providing data that meet the standards and specifications set by NOAA to provide commercial weather data in a manner that allows NOAA to calibrate and evaluate the data."

Bridenstine says by working with the growing commercial sector, NOAA can create a market that will increase innovation, aid weather forecasting, and increase public safety.

"If you want to get more data and get better data, you have to have a market for the data," Bridenstine, chairman of the House subcommittee that has oversight of NOAA's satellite operations, told the Washington Examiner. "We need the competitive free market for the innovation, cost reduction and to get more data."

And while the bill is stalled in the Senate, with uncertainty over Bridenstine's pilot contract provision, NOAA has made clear it's ready to work with the commercial sector.

"By the end of the year, NOAA plans to publish both [its] commercial space policy and the steps we will take to implement that policy, including communication of the quality criteria for evaluating commercial data," spokesman Scott Smullen told the Examiner.

At a House Environment subcommittee hearing earlier this month, the agency's administrator, Manson Brown, told lawmakers the release of those standards "will really signal to the industry [NOAA's] interest" in using the commercial sector for data collection.

That has the commercial sector encouraged, as it believes its can complement NOAA's weather data efforts.

Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., CEO of GeoOptics, which plans to launch its first satellite constellation next year, said the sensing technology that business is working with "is an ideal technology to use to work into commercial data sources, to provide another dimension for weather services and the commercial weather industry around the world to gather data and have data for them in improving their forecasts."

Lautenbacher, who served as administrator of NOAA from 2001 to 2008, said NOAA has used the same sensing technology before, but believes the commercial sector is the place to advance the technology.

"I'm personally a fan of having a commercial model because I think that once a technology is proven, the best way is to let the commercial sector do it," Lautenbacher said.

And the commercial sector is rapidly producing more of the technology.

"We are moving at the pace of a software startup, yet we are doing hardware," said Spire's Chris Wake, who said his company plans to launch 20 satellites by the end of next year and to have more than 100 orbiting by 2018.

Wake believes the industry's quick growth will make it hard for NOAA to ignore. Yet, at the same time, those in the industry are quick to note that the growth and innovation is meant to complement NOAA, not overtake the agency's efforts.

"We've the approached the relationship [with NOAA] as complementary," Wake said. "It's the next kind of market to see that shift toward public-private partnerships."

Lautenbacher expressed similar sentiments, while highlighting the commercial sector's ability to innovate without the bureaucratic hurdles.

"There's things the commercial sector can do in a free-enterprise society that make it much more efficient than the way government is focused, because of the contracting rules, because of the political effects, because of the driving demands of government to be fair to everybody," he said.

Bridenstine also made clear that his efforts, and his provision to the House bill, are not intended to privatize NOAA or to deem its current satellite programs obsolete.

"My goal is not to put those programs at risk. My goal is to move to a day where, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, the model is different."

And that model, the industry and Bridenstine both hope, is one with better weather data and improved forecasting.

"I think it's the beginning of something, if it proves out," Lautenbacher said. "It's the beginning of a big change in gathering weather data."

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