NextGen Forecasting

SmallSats promise improved weather forecasting


The next generation of commercial remote sensing introduces benefits across a wide swathe of use cases, from agriculture to environmental science to defense. One of the most promising applications, however, is weather forecasting, according to Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment Subcommittee within the U.S. House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

“I come from a state that is devastated by severe weather, particularly tornadoes, on an all too frequent basis, Bridenstine said. “We need to move to a day where we have zero deaths from tornadoes. This requires enhancements to the quality and quantity of data feeding our numerical weather models.”

He added commercial weather satellites could help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) maximize forecasting abilities while minimizing expenses.

“There is a burgeoning industry that could potentially have the ability to deliver similar, and in many cases improved, data that NOAA gets from its proprietary systems,” Bridenstine said.

NOAA already uses some commercial imagery, and it’s open to using more, according to spokesperson John Leslie.

“NOAA uses commercial aerial or satellite imagery where possible and as resources allow,” Leslie said. “Within the past few years, NOAA has evaluated emerging commercial imagery to enhance traditional workflows. Access to commercial imagery has become easier through IDIQ contract vehicles and coordination/collaboration with states and other federal agencies, especially the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).”

NOAA welcomes the diversification of data streams promised by the proliferation of SmallSats, Leslie continued. “Access to a broad spectrum of data streams of both active and passive sensors from the depths of the oceans to the far reaches of space that can be exploited in near real time is the Holy Grail. As we strive to better understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, these data support the near-real-time decision tools that help make America a weather-ready nation and sustain resilient ecosystems, communities, and economies.”

SmallSat company PlanetiQ, which plans to launch the world’s first commercial weather satellite constellation by 2017, likewise predicts a bright future in which the private and public sectors share weather data the way they currently share commercial satellite imagery.

“The situation with weather data—observations of the atmosphere, such as temperature, pressure, and water vapor—is very similar to what occurred in the satellite imagery world a decade ago,” said Dan Stillman, senior manager of corporate marketing and communications at PlanetiQ. “Weather satellites, which are solely government systems right now, have faced delays, skyrocketing program costs, and really slow innovation. It takes 10, 12, 13 years from when a government mission is conceptualized until the time it finally flies and starts collecting data. The private sector can innovate much faster than that and ultimately provide a better weather forecast for users worldwide, serving the public good of a weather forecast while reducing the burden on taxpayers that’s carried by large, expensive government systems.”

The impact won’t be measured only in dollars. In places such as Oklahoma, it also will be measured in lives.

Concluded Bridenstine, “The private sector has incredible potential to assist us in providing accurate information to protect American lives and property, disaggregate risk, save the taxpayers’ dollars, and innovate in a competitive market.”

Feature image courtesy of Planet Labs

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