Startup GeoMetWatch intends to leverage both commercial and U.S. government investments to launch a constellation of weather sensors to geostationary orbit and sell the resulting data commercially. Through a combination of hosted payload arrangements and free-flying spacecraft, the North Logan, Utah, company thinks it could get up to eight of its Sounding and Tracking Observatory for Regional Meteorology (STORM) instruments to space by 2019.
As things stand today, the company will have one aloft in late 2016 as a hosted payload aboard AsiaSat 9, a geostationary communications satellite with a view from 122 degrees east longitude. AsiaSat has agreed to finance, on a reimbursable basis, the construction and integration of the sensor aboard its spacecraft and will share in the revenue it generates.
David Crain, GeoMetWatch’s chief executive, has not yet figured out who is going to pay for additional STORM sensors, which are based on the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer developed by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory for a U.S. government project that never made it to the launch pad. However, he sees potential customers in myriad government and commercial markets, including the aviation and offshore oil and gas industries.
“That might even be our primary market,” Crain said.
That’s a new story from GeoMetWatch, which until recently had touted governments as its primary target market. These include the U.S. government, which operates its own weather satellites but is facing potential coverage gaps due to funding issues.
One measure that might help its cause in that regard — data from OpenSecrets.org show that GeoMetWatch spent as much on lobbying in 2013 as in 2011 and 2012 combined — is the proposed Weather Forecasting Improvement Act of 2013 (H.R. 2413). The bill includes a provision designed to remove any lingering doubts as to whether the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) can buy weather data commercially and leverage hosted payload arrangements involving the private sector. The bill is awaiting a vote by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Crain spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Dan Leone.
Back in June, you were talking quite a lot of about basing your business on U.S. and international government customers. Now you say commercial customers might be your primary market. What changed?
We did anticipate initially that we would get sovereign commitments to fly the constellation. But since we’ve had some more visibility in the news, a lot of commercial opportunities are coming out of the woodwork. We may have just underestimated the commercial market. It was a market that had a lot of pent-up demand because there was no alternative capability.
On that note, you said the aviation and offshore oil and gas industries might be willing to pay for STORM sensors and data. Can you give an example of why it might be worth their while?
There’s a dollar cost associated with improved weather knowledge. For aviation, for example, there’s route planning and air traffic control applications. If I can tell an airplane to cruise from the U.S. West Coast to Asia at 25,000 feet (7,600 meters) rather than 27,000 feet because they’re going to have a tailwind rather than a headwind, they may save tens of thousands of dollars on that one flight in fuel costs.
Are you giving up on government markets?
We’ll always have sovereign customers, because that’s a requirement of our commercial remote sensing license from the Commerce Department. We have a product that we produce, and even if we don’t have a pre-existing agreement with the U.S. government, they can always request that we provide data to them. We’re not required to just give it to them, though; they have to pay the going rate. The exception right now is NASA. In exchange for the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer sensor we’re basing STORM on, they get four years’ worth of climate data from that first STORM instrument.
What would your full STORM constellation look like, and how soon might it be fully deployed and operational?
We’re going to be flying six to eight satellites. That would give us a STORM sensor at every 60 degrees longitude. We’re going to have two to four of these on commercial communications buses, like the AsiaSat opportunity. But there’s a significant number of them, two to four, that could also be what we would call free-flyers, meaning it would be a STORM mission and we would have the ability to host payloads ourselves.
What’s the motivation for potentially launching as many as four dedicated STORM satellites?
There’s potential in some of our future missions to host someone else’s payloads alongside our STORM instrument. There’s been at least some preliminary interest from the Defense Department. We’ve been briefing various military groups on our capability. We think we can offer them significant gap mitigation and enhanced capability. A lot of what the Defense Department is asking for — contractual vehicles compliant with the security requirements, details on integrating a potentially ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations)-controlled instrument onto a commercial bus — we’ve already done to get our remote sensing license. They’re also looking for hosted payload opportunities where they can wait maybe five or six years to develop their instrument before integrating with the bus. A typical commercial opportunity, it’s more like two to three years.
At this point, what’s your corporate headcount?
We’ve got about four people in management, about five or six lobbyists. We also partner with the Advanced Weather Systems Foundation at Utah State, which is building the STORM-1 instrument. Their headcount is around 20, moving to around 40 in the next few months. Then later this year, we’ll be starting our ground product contract with the University of Wisconsin. That’s a headcount of about 10 or so who will be working on developing the operational algorithms that will be providing the data products. Those two universities were the co-principal investigator on the Geosynchronous Imaging Fourier Transform Spectrometer mission.
Leaving aside for the moment your financing plans for the STORM constellation, how did you pay for the sensor that will launch on AsiaSat 9?
For STORM-1 we are using the U.S. Export Import Bank to finance the build, and that is being supported by Asia Satellite Telecommunications Co.’s balance sheet. We’ve started construction of that sensor and we’ll proceed forward. We actually have a lot of interest in Asia. We’ve signed more than a dozen memoranda of understanding for purchase agreements in Asia.
Do you think there is anything more the U.S. federal government could be doing to promote commercial data buys?
They could appoint a new full-time director of the Office of Space Commercialization within NOAA. There hasn’t been a White House appointee in that position since Ed Morris left in 2008. And we have not had a real advocate for these capabilities since he left. Actually, I just got a call from some potential government customers asking me, “Why haven’t we been told about these capabilities?” And I don’t really have a response for them. We can help them learn about what we do, but that really should be the job of the director of the Office of Space Commercialization — not to advocate for any one company, but to advocate for the capability of doing this commercially.