U.S. Air Force taking closer look at buying commercial weather data


WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force develops a long-term weather satellite strategy, the service also is considering using commercial weather data to meet gaps in its forecasting capabilities.

In a request for information posted to the Federal Business Opportunities website in late December, the Air Force said it was looking for white papers that would describe industry’s “long-term interest in providing weather data as a commercial service, utilizing currently available or projected on-orbit weather capabilities.” The notice appears to be the service’s first foray into using commercially available weather data to meet requirements.

The interest in the commercial weather marketplace arrived the same day that a trio of researchers, including Peter Wegner, the former director of the Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space office, wrote in an Air Force magazine that the Defense Department will come to rely on commercial services for 80 percent of weather-sensing data.

For much of 2015, the Air Force struggled to articulate its long-term weather satellite strategy to Congress, while a number of startup companies, including PlanetiQ, GeoMetWatch and Spire, have developed plans to provide weather data to commercial and government customers.

In an essay for the Air & Power Journal, Wegner, along with Thomas Adang, the senior technical adviser at the ORS office, and Maureen Rheman, senior executive and director of the Reperi’s Analysis Center, said the “budding” commercial industry could provide weather data in areas such as cloud imaging.

Some members of Congress, most notably, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), have advocated for federal agencies buying commercial weather data rather than government agencies, such as the Defense Department or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, to develop their own systems. NOAA is putting together its own plan to begin incorporating commercial data into its weather systems.

The RFI comes months after Congress asked the Air Force for a more detailed strategy for its weather satellite program.

An Air Force study, known as an analysis of alternatives and completed in 2014, identified 12 areas where the service would face gaps in weather data in the next decade. In theory, some of those gaps would be handled by the Weather Satellite Gapfiller or the Weather Satellite Follow-on program. But the details of those programs, including acquisition strategies and launch dates, are still undecided or have yet to be made public. In addition, Congress terminated the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program in its 2016 spending bill eliminating a potential solution for some of those gaps.

But in recent years, GeoMetWatch and PlanetiQ executives have said the difficulties U.S. agencies are experiencing in revitalizing their aging weather satellite constellations may provide an opportunity for commercial vendors to sell weather data drawn from space-based sensors. Spire plans to launch 100 cubesats and PlanetiQ  tapped the Indian Space Research Organisation last month to launch the first two of 12 planned satellites this November.

“One anticipates that this layer will grow to provide as much as 80 percent of the total Earth imaging, weather sensing, and communications capabilities used by the DOD—and will feature increased resilience and persistence,” Wegner, Reman and Adang wrote.

In the RFI, the Air Force asks a series of questions including the type of data, reliability of data, the downlink method, the cost and price and how the data will be available, such as an annual or monthly subscription.

Responses are due Jan. 29.