A New Service Model Planned for Earth Monitoring
THE RECENT IMPACT OF SUPERSTORM
Sandy speaks to a need for greater weather monitoring, particularly in light of an aging constellation of satellites.
This coupled with the budgetary constraints on federal agencies provides an opening for private industry to fill in the gaps. PLANETiQ is a new, privately funded start-up company that plans to launch a constellation of microsatellites to provide real-time data about our atmosphere and planet.
Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball spoke with Anne Hale Miglarese, CEO of PLANETiQ, about the companyís plans and approach.
S&S How did PLANETiQ get started?
MIGLARESE In 2006, there was a mission called Cosmic, which was a collaboration between the Taiwanese space agency (NSPO) and UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) in the U.S. to fly an experimental constellation of six satellites; they were launched in 2006. The technology is GPS-RO with the RO standing for radio occultation.
The Cosmic program, which was experimental by design, has been wildly successful with many of the forecast agencies around the world seeing a dramatic improvement in their weather forecasts, to the extent that several national weather forecast agencies around the globe now have GPS-RO data in their operational forecast models. This has been a significant gate to cross from a technical validation standpoint.
However, the Cosmic-1 constellation is degrading rapidly. There are only four out of six satellites that are operational now, and the life expectancy of the remaining is dropping dramatically.
The follow-on mission that was to be Cosmic-2 has run into a whole host of issues. Part of the burning platform are the severe issues that have been encountered by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force in flying their weather missions, including program cancellations that weíve seen for both. They have much larger issues to approach right now in dealing with the basic data that they need. GPS-RO data does not immediately replace any of the traditional data required, but it improves the impact of that data and the forecast significantly for extreme events. You can see where this is of great interest to forecast agencies.
Broad Reach Engineering built the original GPS-RO instrument for the Cosmic mission and gratefully are one of PLANETiQís financial investors.
Thereís been a good deal of talk for seven or eight years about commercializing GPS-RO data. I think the science community is on the verge of embracing commercial organizational efforts to supply this data. They understand how important it is, as well as the limitations that so many countries around the world face in funding a full-scale mission for GPS-RO data.
Within that environment, Chris McCormick, founder of Broad Reach, has brought together two additional firms, Moog and Millennium Engineering and Integration, to provide the seed capital for PLANETiQ. We are putting together the business plan to raise the capital required to make this a reality.
S&S Is it a phased approach with a constellation of satellites to span the globe?
MIGLARESE Ideally our maximum constellation would be 24 satellites.
Right now, weíre looking at 12, and weíll need approximately $125 million for that. Each satellite is about 75 kg, with launches of four at a time in three consecutive years. The 12 satellites will provide excellent data across the globe.
S&S You mentioned the weather forecast measurement as the primary market. Are there other areas of measurement and monitoring that you can monetize?
MIGLARESE The ionospheric space weather measurements are of huge interest to the United States Air Force as well as a large number of commercial organizations that operate satellites in space, the airlines, and power grid operators. If we get a solid constellation of 12, and particularly if we can take it to 24, there will be a dramatic increase in the ability to monitor and forecast space weather.
That clearly is a product that weíd like to offer the community. The effectual primary parameters of data that come off of this sensor are temperature and pressure, and secondary data include water vapor, wind speed and wind direction. This is vector-based data, from the atmosphere back to the spacecraft in low Earth orbit. Itís not big data, but a profile for multiple points with X, Y and Z coordinates.
That raw data is ingested in forecast models to then make a forecast.
There is four trillion dollars in weather risk impacting the economy every year. There are a whole host of applications, with every citizen, society and business interested in weather.
Globally, society is very interested in climate change. Another very important variable of this data is the ability to improve climate models over time.
S&S Are you planning to provide a service?
MIGLARESE We will be a data provider, not a service provider. We will have professional expertise necessary to support our customers as they ingest the data, but we will not offer services. There are many highly qualified government agencies and private weather companies across the globe, and we look to them as our customers.
S&S So, the opportunity is clearly a business opportunity, but is it also tied into policy?
MIGLARESE I think there are many interesting policy questions here, most of which parallel the policy issues that have played out in the satellite imagery business. Iím grateful to have spent decades in the imagery world to have learned some of those lessons.
Our customers in the United States will be organizations like NOAA, the United States Air Force, which Iíve met with several times already, the United States Navy, and the National Science Foundation. I would see NOAA as holding a license to distribute the data throughout the federal civilian government.
The Air Force will hopefully buy a license for the DOD efforts, the National Science Foundation could distribute the data to all of their principle investigators who are engaged in research related to weather and climate variability.
If you look at the other governments around the world, I see very similar customers in those organizations.
In France for instance Ė their weather organization, their Air Force, and their climate research organization.
Those are the type of government customers weíre looking at.
As far as commercial customers, those very high-end weather forecast companies that generate tailored forecasts for their commercial customers, and their customer base may be the Futureís Market, commercial airlines, shipping or the derivatives market.
There are a few handful or more of those companies in the United States and around the globe, and we see those as potential customers. We want to focus on what we believe we can do well, and that is to provide the data.
S&S With this Summerís drought, I remember reading about analysts in the Futureís Market getting out of their offices to visit fields and verify more directly, which speaks to a need for more granular data. Do you have experience with the Futureís Market?
MIGLARESE Not yet. Iíve been on the job about three months now, and Iím employee number one. Weíre working with lawyers to set up all the corporate documents and things of that nature. I recently traveled to Boulder for a science meeting where many of the GPS-RO scientists from around the world gathered for their annual conference.
Something worth mentioning is that one of the reasons we have Landsat today is based on the Futureís Market. The first large-scale commercial Earth observation mission was the LACIE Project. It was a study done in the early to mid-1970s to look at crop forecasts locally for the Futureís Market, and it is still an application of Landsat data today.
S&S Is the future maybe a living model, with direct updates from multiple systems?
MIGLARESE Maybe. This data will be delivered via an Inmarsat terminal, and will be available within three minutes of taking the observation.
I think another interesting policy implication, where your question is leaning, is that in the imagery world we are dealing with commercial industry providing data to the government where traditionally governments owned their own data.
There was NextView and then EnhancedView, and thereís certainly a lot of activity around that right now. The intelligence community has been grappling with this for a whole host of reasons for twenty years. Iíve spent a decade working for NOAA, and working on many of these imagery issues. In an ideal world, government might have all the resources necessary to collect all the data possible, and to distribute it. But, I just donít see that happening; I donít believe that is the model of the future.
NOAA, like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is grappling with the cultural and policy issue of identifying the highest priority targets where they will absolutely collect their own data, and where they will partner with the commercial sector to acquire data. Youíre familiar with NextView and EnhancedView, and I anticipate the same sort of evolution across the U.S. federal civilian government agencies.
S&S How much of the shift is due to risk and high profile of satellite failure, and the need to cut costs?
MIGLARESE It is very difficult for a government to build an operational satellite. All of the programmatic reviews that they have to go through, and the requirements analysis, tends to lead to mission creep. Regardless of who you are, whether you are NOAA or another agency, that happens and when it happens you add a tremendous amount of cost.
We are very focused on providing GPS-RO data on a 75-kilogram satellite that we can build, launch and insure for $5 million per satellite.
Thatís an efficiency that I just donít believe it is possible to achieve in government, given all the things that a government has to do to oversee the citizensí and taxpayer investment.
At that level of accountability and complexity, it becomes very expensive.
S&S The $125 million figure for this global constellation seems small, certainly when compared with government programs. The ability to launch four satellites at once also sounds compelling. Are these costs and efficiencies only possible with recent advancements?
MIGLARESE I think the timing is right with the commercialization, and I think society is encouraging that. The reason that I embrace this challenge is that Iím really passionate about what the data can do to improve the forecast around the globe, and to give us better science about what is going on with our climate. Regardless of what your personal beliefs may be about what is changing the climate, the climate is changing. We need to do a much better job of trying to understand that and to mitigate those changes. Itís so much fun to be working on an issue that is so important to society.
S&S There have been a number of mandates to spur action, with such things as carbon markets to factor in the economic impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the economic benefits of carbon sinks. Are mandates a necessity to spur the next level of awareness?
MIGLARESE I think there are a couple of issues. There is the general commercialization of space with this administration.
You just have to look at the Space Shuttle program, and whatís happened there. I donít think anyone would have thought that commercialization was possible six years ago.
There are also all the financial issues that our country has to face in the next ten years, and how those changes will impact the budgets of the Air Force, NOAA, and NASA. We need to consider the appropriate roles of government, as you look at efficiencies that can be garnered in the private sector, but where the data can also contribute to a public cause.
The important thing is that citizens get an accurate forecast and can get out of harmís way, and that we understand the impacts of weather on climate and ecosystem services. There is a part of that mission that is inherently governmental, but does it have to be as a supplier of data? Those are huge policy questions that I think will be addressed in the next couple of years.
Every citizen, government and business wants better weather data. Forecast agencies across the globe have done a fabulous job of improving the forecast over the last ten years, and I think this data can help them even more.
S&S The latest stumbles of the GOES-13 weather satellite speak to a greater redundancy. Has that spurred you on, and helped the cause?
MIGLARESE They did a great job of moving that spare satellite into action.
Imagine what would have happened if that spare wasnít there. Those satellites are multi-billion dollar satellites, and they are very important to have.
We arenít talking about multi-billion dollar satellites; weíre talking about $5 million satellites, with a constellation that is going to cost $125 million that provides a dramatic improvement on the forecast when assimilated with the other data.
This interview was conducted by Matt Ball, and originally appeared in Sensors & Systems, where he is editor. It can be accessed online at www.sensysmag.com/dialog/interviews.