With Wider Focus, Exelis Environmental Business Taking Off


SAN FRANCISCO — After more than four decades of focusing almost exclusively on building weather monitoring instruments for U.S. government clients, Exelis’ weather business located in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is waging a campaign to broaden its product line to include environmental monitoring tools and to expand its customer base.

That campaign is beginning to pay off. Climate-related projects, which made up less than 1 percent of sales for Exelis Geospatial Systems’ environmental business in 2013, now account for more than 15 percent of sales, said Eric Webster, vice president and director for environmental systems at Exelis Geospatial Systems. Exelis officials declined to reveal the value of those sales.

Exelis — which is being acquired by Melbourne, Florida-based Harris Corp. in a deal announced Feb. 6 — is hiring engineers, scientists, researchers and technicians to accommodate its growing workload, which includes building the primary environmental monitoring sensor for Japan’s Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (Gosat)-2, a radiation measurement instrument for NASA’s Earth Science Division, a ground-based laser for the U.S. Energy Department and an airborne lidar for a NASA mission.

At the same time, Exelis is continuing its longstanding work building weather sensors for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In February, the company delivered the first of four Advanced Baseline Imagers, the primary payload designed to provide high-resolution meteorological observations for Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R, a project jointly managed by NASA and NOAA and scheduled to launch in March 2016 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. Exelis also is building the Cross-track Infrared Sounder (CrIS) to measure atmospheric temperature and water vapor on NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2 mission. The CrIS instrument is similar to the sounder Exelis built for the NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite launched in 2011.

With each new project, Exelis is preparing itself to compete in what it anticipates will be an international, commercial market for climate data.

Eric Webster Exelis
“There isn’t yet a commercial climate or environmental industry,” Eric Webster, vice president and director for environmental systems at Exelis Geospatial Systems, said. “As the future unfolds, private companies will be able to provide observation, modeling and actionable information directly to cities, the energy industry and other consumers.

“There is a commercial weather industry,” Webster said. “There isn’t yet a commercial climate or environmental industry. As the future unfolds, private companies will be able to provide observation, modeling and actionable information directly to cities, the energy industry and other consumers.”

Webster expects that market to develop as a result of expanding launch opportunities, technological advances and increasing demand for various types of environmental information, which will increase if international treaties begin placing a monetary value on units of carbon. Cities, for example, may seek information on specific pollution sources and sinks, the areas that absorb greenhouse gases, to prepare for a time when they may be monitored or fined for emitting pollution. Or cities may seek that type of information to tamp down on pollution sources and become better global citizens, he added.

Although precise information on local carbon sources and sinks is not yet available, gathering it will become increasingly possible with the combination of new hyperspectral satellite sensors, airborne instruments and ground-based tools, Webster said. By combining information from the various sources, “you get much finer detail,” he said, likening it to weather monitoring, which uses data from satellites, airborne instruments and ground-based radars to forecast storms. “We believe that is a very promising new market and something we are going after very heavily,” Webster said.

Advanced Himawari Imager
Exelis has built two Advanced Himawari Imager weather monitoring instruments for the Japan Meteorological Agency. Credit: Exelis

Exelis plans to expand its capability to address that new market by leveraging expertise gained building weather monitoring instruments. The company’s involvement in Gosat, for example, stems from its work on the Advanced Baseline Imager, CrIS and its contract to build the Advanced Himawari Imager for the Japan Meteorological Agency. Exelis has built two Advanced Himawari Imagers. The first was integrated in the Himawari-8 weather satellite built by Mitsubishi Electric Corp. and launched in October on Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s H-2A rocket.

Exelis also has been working with NASA’s Langley Research Center since 2004 to identify instruments capable of making global, space-based measurements of carbon dioxide. That effort led Exelis to develop the Multi-Functional Fiber Laser Lidar, which has flown in 12 NASA airborne campaigns.

In January, Exelis won a $3.5 million NASA contract to modify its lidar for an Earth System Science Pathfinder program to study carbon dioxide and methane sources and sinks. The program, called Atmospheric Carbon and Transport (ACT)-America, is led by Pennsylvania State University.

Exelis plans to operate the instrument onboard a C-130 transport aircraft to measure carbon dioxide and study its movement in the atmosphere.

“We are excited to have such an innovative instrument as part of the mission,” said Ken Davis, professor of meteorology in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences and principal investigator for ACT-America. “I believe that this will be the first use of a carbon dioxide active remote sensing instrument for a sustained scientific mission. Previous applications of instruments of this type have been primarily focused on evaluation of the technology.”

In May, Exelis won a NASA contract worth as much as $208 million to build the Radiation Budget Instrument, which is designed to measure the amount of reflected sunlight and thermal radiation emitted by Earth, for the second Joint Polar Satellite System mission, scheduled for launch in 2021. “It’s the first contract for a space-based instrument for NASA’s Earth Science Division that we’ve won,” Webster said.

In 2013, the Energy Department awarded Exelis a grant to make ground-based carbon dioxide measurements with a similar type of lidar. With that grant, Exelis will study how carbon is stored in fields in Illinois and produce maps showing the varying concentration levels.

As Exelis broadens its customer base, the company is preparing to offer new data products. “We have been investing in algorithms and data processing,” Webster said. “Rather than saying, ‘Here is your laser and your reflector,’ our goal for the future is to have more of a commercial enterprise that can provide a suite of capabilities for various customers.”