Two companies win first NOAA commercial weather contracts

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration awarded contracts Sept. 15 to two companies to provide weather data as part of a pilot program that could lead to greater uses of data from commercial satellites.

NOAA announced that it awarded Commercial Weather Data Pilot contracts to Pasadena, California-based GeoOptics and San Francisco-based Spire Global. The GeoOptics contract is worth $695,000 and the Spire Global contract is valued at $370,000.

Under the contracts, the two companies will each provide GPS radio occultation data from commercial satellites. Such data provides profiles of atmospheric temperature and humidity that can be incorporated into forecasting models. NOAA will assess the data to determine how useful it is before making decisions on acquiring more data.

“This approach is a win-win solution,” NOAA said in a statement announcing the contracts. “Both NOAA and the commercial firms will gain a trial run of the NOAA evaluation process, a necessary first step to considering sustained operational use of new commercial weather data.”

Companies have been advocating for years for commercial weather data programs, arguing they offer an affordable approach to augmenting data from existing government weather satellites, improving the accuracy of forecasts.

“We look forward to demonstrating that commercial satellite data purchases can enable the unmatched efficiencies of the private sector to help NOAA accomplish its vital mission to protect and inform the public,” said Conrad Lautenbacher, chief executive of GeoOptics and a former NOAA administrator, in a Sept. 15 statement.

GPS radio occultation is attractive to companies since it can be accomplished with small, inexpensive satellites. Spire has launched several three-unit cubesats capable of collecting weather data. GeoOptics is also developing a constellation of small satellites capable of collecting GPS radio occultation data, although it has not yet launched any satellites.

Member of Congress have prodded NOAA in recent years to invest in commercial weather data purchases, providing $3 million in fiscal year 2016 for the pilot program. “I am encouraged that NOAA is listening to Congressional calls to consider a paradigm shift by beginning to seriously consider all options to better predict weather,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement. “NOAA’s first of hopefully many awards will provide innovative private sector weather data to enhance our weather forecasting capabilities.”

“With the awarding of multiple contracts, NOAA has shown that there is great potential for the government to leverage this new industry,” said Rep. James Bridenstine (R-Okla.), chairman of the environment subcommittee and a leading advocate for commercial weather data in Congress.

Under the contracts, the companies have through April 2017 to deliver data to NOAA, which will then assess the data through the end of fiscal year 2017. NOAA will produce a final report on the effectiveness of the pilot program early in fiscal year 2018.