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Spire, GeoOptics Win First NOAA Commercial Weather Data Contracts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Sep-2016
Updated: 16-Sep-2016 07:09 AM

NOAA made its first two awards today under the Commercial Weather Data Pilot program created by Congress last year.  The winners are Spire Global and GeoOptics, both of which will provide radio occultation data to NOAA for evaluation to determine whether commercial data can be incorporated into NOAA’s numerical weather models.

Congress provided $3 million to NOAA in the FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations act (Division B of the FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act) for the pilot program.  It required NOAA to enter into at least one pilot project through an open competitive process to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and to submit a report on how it would implement the project.  NOAA publicly released that report in April.

The idea originated in the House-passed Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).  Bridenstine chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and also serves on the House Armed Services Committee.  He led efforts to include a provision in the pending FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act for DOD to create a similar program.

Under the contracts, the two companies will provide GNSS radio occultation data to NOAA by April 30, 2017 to demonstrate data quality and potential value to NOAA’s weather forecasts and warnings.  NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (NESDIS) will assess the data through the end of FY2017 and issue a report in early FY2018.  The contract award amounts were $370,000 for Spire and $695,000 for GeoOptics.

GNSS refers to Global Navigation Satellite Systems, of which the U.S. Global Positioning System (GPS) is probably the best known and most widely used.

NOAA already uses GPS radio occultation (GPO-RO) data in its forecasts.  The data are acquired by the six-satellite COSMIC constellation, a joint program with Taiwan.  NOAA is requesting funds for a COSMIC-2 follow-on.

RO data are acquired by very small satellites (microsatellites or nanosatellites) that use signals from GPS or other GNSS systems to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  When combined with data from polar-orbiting weather satellites, better weather forecasts are enabled.

Thousands of RO measurements per day are useful and COSMIC provides 2,000-3,000.   COSMIC-2 will provide about 10,000, but commercial sources can increase the total to 50,000-100,000, the upper limit in terms of when costs would outweigh benefits according to NESDIS Assistant Administrator Steve Volz.

NOAA called the contract awards a “win-win” because both NOAA and the companies will “gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data.”

The cautious phrasing underscores that this is a pilot program only.  NOAA officials express concern about whether the commercial data are accurate, reliable and verifiable.  The pilot project will allow NOAA to assess those characteristics.   NOAA also worries about whether the commercial data can be made available globally in conformance with its obligations to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) since companies typically restrict sharing of their data.  That issue is still being debated.

Bridenstine and House SS&T Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) praised the awards in a joint statement today.  Smith said he hoped these were just the first of many such contracts and thanked the two companies for their “leadership, ingenuity, and entrepreneurial spirit.”  Bridenstine noted that the awards show “there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry.”

GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA Administrator, said his company looks forward to demonstrating that commercial data “can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public.” 


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