NOAA Declares Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program a Success

NOAA Declares Commercial Weather Data Pilot Program a Success

Almost five years after Congress passed a law directing NOAA to initiate a pilot program to determine if commercial weather data could be incorporated into NOAA’s weather forecasting, the answer is back — yes.  After two rounds of contract awards to companies producing radio occultation data to improve weather forecasts, NOAA will soon issue a request for proposals for operational data and begin looking at other commercial technologies.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator and former Member of Congress from Oklahoma’s 1st district (2013-2018) . Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Jim Bridenstine, then a Congressman from Oklahoma and now NASA Administrator, pushed the idea of a Commercial Weather Data Pilot (CWDP) program in Congress when he chaired the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. The provision passed the House as part of the Weather Research Forecast and Innovation Act in 2014 and again in 2015, but that law did not clear Congress until 2017.

In 2015, however, the CWDP was included in the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations act that funds NOAA. It directed NOAA to enter into at least one pilot contract through an open competitive process “to assess the potential viability of commercial weather data in its weather modeling and forecasting.” It provided $3 million to purchase commercial weather data and determine if it met NOAA’s criteria and required NOAA to report to Congress within 60 days on how it planned to implement the program.

NOAA issued a Commercial Space Policy in January 2016 and provided the required report to Congress in March 2016.  It settled on purchasing radio occultation (RO) data obtained from commercial satellites with sensors that use Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to make measurements of temperature and water vapor throughout the lower parts of the atmosphere.  It is often called GPS-RO data, or GNSS-RO when referring to GPS and similar systems operated by other countries and collectively known as Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).

The RO data improves the accuracy of weather forecasts when combined with data from polar orbiting weather satellites.  NOAA has been obtaining RO data from COSMIC and COSMIC-2 satellites built in cooperation with Taiwan and the U.S. Air Force. Thousands of measurements per day are useful.

NOAA’s main concern about commercial data was whether it would meet tests for accuracy, verifiability, and reliability.

NOAA signed Round 1 contracts in 2016 with GeoOptics and Spire, and a second round in 2018 added PlanetIQ, although the latter did not launch a satellite in time to be evaluated. Based on the Spire and GeoOptics data, however, on Friday, NOAA declared the pilot program a success.

Based on the results of the technical evaluation of the data provided by two vendors in the CWDP Round 2 Pilot, NOAA has concluded that the commercial sector is capable of providing the quality of data needed to help support NOAA’s operational weather forecasting needs. As a result, NOAA is proceeding with plans to acquire commercial RO data for operational use.

NOAA anticipates releasing a Request for Proposals for operational data “in the near future.” Its FY2021 request is $15 million.  NOAA said the FY2021 request includes an additional $8 million “to investigate new commercial technologies beyond radio occultation.”

Learning the news, Bridenstine gave a shout out to his former staffer Christopher Ingraham who managed the legislation as it worked its way through Congress.

Curiously, NOAA’s report makes no mention of the legislative origins of this program.

GeoOptics CEO Conrad Lautenbacher, a former NOAA Administrator, said as the “report demonstrates, commercial satellite data will enable NOAA to make significant improvements in forecasting worldwide within the consistent budget limitations under which it operates.”

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.