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Miglarese AnneThe recent impact of Hurricane Sandy speaks to a need for greater weather monitoring, particularly in light of an aging constellation of satellites. This coupled with the budgetary constraints on federal agencies provides an opening for private industry to fill in the gaps. PLANETiQ is a new, privately funded start-up company that plans to launch a constellation of micro satellites to provide real-time data about our atmosphere and planet. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball spoke with Anne Hale Miglarese, CEO of PLANETiQ, about the company’s plans and approach.

Miglarese AnneThe recent impact of Hurricane Sandy speaks to a need for greater weather monitoring, particularly in light of an aging constellation of satellites. This coupled with the budgetary constraints on federal agencies provides an opening for private industry to fill in the gaps. PLANETiQ is a new, privately funded start-up company that plans to launch a constellation of micro satellites to provide real-time data about our atmosphere and planet. Sensors & Systems (S&S) editor Matt Ball spoke with Anne Hale Miglarese, CEO of PLANETiQ, about the company’s plans and approach.

S&S: How did Planet IQ get started?

Miglarese:  In 2006,  there was a mission called Cosmic, which was collaboration between the Taiwanese space agency (NSPO) and UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) in the U.S. to fly an experimental constellation of six satellites that were launched in 2006. The technology is GPS-RO with the RO standing for radio occultation. The Cosmic program, which was experimental by design, has been wildly successful with many of the forecast agencies around the world seeing a dramatic improvement in their weather forecasts, to the extent that several national weather forecast agencies around the globe now have GPS-RO data in their operational forecast models. This has been a significant gate to cross from a technical validation standpoint. However, the Cosmic 1 constellation is degrading rapidly. There are only four out of six satellites that are operational now, and the life expectancy of the remaining is dropping dramatically. 

The follow-on mission that was to be Cosmic 2 has run into a whole host of issues. Part of the burning platform is the severe issues that have been encountered by NOAA and the U.S. Air Force in flying their weather missions, including program cancellations that we’ve seen for both. They have much larger issues to approach right now in dealing with the basic data that they need.  GPS-RO data does not immediately replace any of the traditional data required, but it improves the impact of that data and the forecast significantly for extreme events. You can see where this is of great interest to forecast agencies. 

Broad Reach Engineering built the original GPS-RO instrument for the Cosmic mission and gratefully are one of PLANETiQ’s financial investors. There’s been a good deal of talk for seven or eight years about commercializing GPS RO data. I think the science community  is  on the verge of embracing commercial organizational efforts to supply  this data. They understand how important it is, as well the limitations so many countries around the world face in funding a full scale mission for GPS RO data. 

Within that environment, Chris McCormick founder of Broad Reach has brought together two additional firms, Moog and Millennium Engineering and Integration, to provide the seed capital for PLANETiQ. We are putting together the business plan to raise capital required to make this a reality.

S&S: Is it a phased approach with a constellation of satellites to span the globe?

Miglarese: Ideally our maximum constellation would be 24 satellites. Right now, we’re looking at 12, and we’ll need approximately $125 million dollars for that. Each satellite is about 75 kg, with launches four at a time in three consecutive years. The 12 satellites will provide excellent data across the globe.

S&S: You mentioned the  weather forecast measurement as the primary market. Are there other areas of measurement and monitoring that you can monetize?

Miglarese: The ionospheric space weather measurements are of huge interest to the United States Air Force as well as a large number of commercial organizations that operate satellites in space, the airlines, and power grid operators. If we get a solid constellation of 12, and particularly if we can take it to 24, there will be a dramatic increase in the ability to monitor and forecast space weather.

That clearly is a product that we’d like to offer the community. The effectual primary parameters of data that come off of this sensor are temperature and pressure, and secondary data includes water vapor, wind speed and wind direction. This is vector-based data, from the atmosphere back to the spacecraft in low Earth orbit. It’s not big data, but a profile for multiple points with X, Y and Z coordinates. That raw data is ingested in forecast models to then make a forecast. 

There is four trillion dollars in weather risk impacting the economy every year. There are a whole host of applications, with every citizen, society and business interested in weather. Globally, society is very interested in climate change. Another very important variable of this data is the ability  to improve climate models over time. 

S&S: Are you planning to provide a service?

Miglarese: We will be a data provider, not a service provider. We will have professional expertise necessary to support our customers as they ingest the data, but we will not offer services. There are many  highly qualified government agencies and private weather companies across the globe, and we look to them as  our customers..

S&S: So, the opportunity is clearly a business opportunity, but also tied into policy?

Miglarese: I think there are many  interesting policy questions here most of which parallel the policy issues that have played out in the satellite imagery business. I’m grateful to have spent  decades  in the imagery world to have learned some of those lessons.

Our customers in the United States will be  organizations like NOAA, the United States Air Force, which I’ve met with several times already, the United States Navy, and the National Science Foundation. I would see NOAA as holding a license to distribute the data throughout the federal civilian government. The Air Force will  hopefully buy a license for the DOD efforts, . The National Science Foundation could distribute the data to all of their principle investigators that are engaged in research related to weather and climate variability.

If you look at the other governments around the world, I  see very similar customers in those organizations. In France for instance, their weather organization, their Air Force, and their climate research organization. Those are the type of government customers we’re looking at.

As far as commercial customers, those very high-end weather forecast companies that generate tailored  forecasts for their commercial customer, and their customer base may be the Future’s Market, commercial airlines, shipping or the derivatives market. There are a few handful or more of those companies in the United States and around the globe, and we see those as potential customers. We want to focus on what we believe we can do well, and that is to provide the data.

S&S: With this Summer’s drought, I remember reading about analysts in the Future’s Market getting out of their offices to visit fields and verify more directly, which speaks to a need for more granular data. Do you have experience with the Future’s Market

Miglarese: Not yet. I’ve been on the job about a three months now, and I’m employee number one. We’re working with lawyers to set up all the corporate documents and things of that nature. I recently traveled to Boulder for a science meeting where many of the GPS RO scientists from around the world gathered for their annual conference.

Something worth mentioning is that one of the reasons we have Landsat today is based on the Future’s Market. The first large-scale commercial earth observation mission was the LACIE Project. It was a study done in the early to mid-1970s to look at crop forecasts locally for the Future’s Market, and it is still an application of Landsat data today.

S&S: Is the future maybe a living model, with direct updates from multiple systems?

Miglarese: Maybe. This data will be delivered via an Inmarsat terminal, and will be available within three minutes of taking the observation. I think another interesting policy implications, where your question is leaning, is that in the imagery world we are dealing with commercial industry providing data to the government where traditionally governments owned their own data. 

There was Next View and then Enhanced View, and there’s certainly a lot of activity around that right now. The intelligence community has been grappling with this for a whole host of reasons for twenty years. I’ve spent a decade working for NOAA, and working on many of these imagery issues. In an ideal world, government might have all the resources necessary to collect all the data possible, and to distribute it. But, I just don’t see that happening I don’t believe that is the model of the future .

NOAA, like the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), is grappling with the cultural and policy issue of  identifying the highest priority targets where they will absolutely collect their own data, and where they will partner with the commercial sector to acquire data. You’re familiar with Next View and Enhanced View, and I anticipate the same sort of evolution across the U.S federal civilian government agencies. 

S&S: How much of the shift is due to risk and high profile of satellite failure, and the need to cut costs?

Miglarese: It is very difficult for a government to build an operational satellite.  All of the programmatic reviews that they have to go through, and the requirements analysis, tends to lead to mission creep. Regardless of who you are, whether you are NOAA or another agency, that happens and when it happens you add a tremendous amount of cost.

We are very focused on providing GPS-RO data on a 75 kilogram satellite that we can build, launch and insure for $5 million per satellite. That’s an efficiency that I just don’t believe it is possible to achieve in government, given all the things that a government has to do to oversee the citizen’s and taxpayer investment. At that level of accountability and complexity, it becomes very expensive.

S&S: The $125 million figure for this global constellations seems small, certainly when compared with government programs. The ability to launch four satellites at once also sounds compelling. Are these costs and efficiencies only possible with recent advancements?

Miglarese: I think the timing is right with the commercialization, and I think society is encouraging that. The reason that I embrace this challenge is that I’m really passionate about what the data can do to improve the forecast around the globe, and to give us better science about what is going on with our climate. Regardless of what your personal beliefs may be about what is changing the climate, the climate is changing. We need to do a much better job of trying to understand that and to mitigate those changes. It’s so much fun to be working on an issue that is so important to society.

S&S: There have been a number of mandates to spur action, with such things as carbon markets to factor in the economic impacts of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the economic benefits of carbon sinks. Are mandates a necessity to spur the next level of awareness?

Miglarese: I think there are a couple of issues. There is the general commercialization of space with this administration. You just have to look at the Space Shuttle program, and what’s happened there, I don’t think anyone would have thought that commercialization was possible six years ago. There are also all the financial issues that our country has to face in the next ten years, and how those changes will impact the budgets of the Air Force, NOAA, and NASA. The appropriate roles of government, as you look at efficiencies that can be garnered in the private sector, but where the data can also contribute to a public cause.

The important things is that citizens get an accurate forecast and can get out of harm’s way, and that we understand the impacts of weather on climate and ecosystem services. There is a part of that mission that is inherently governmental, but does it have to be as a supplier of data? Those are huge policy questions that I think will be addressed in the next couple of years.

Every citizen, government and business wants better weather data. Forecast agencies across the globe  have done a fabulous job of improving the forecast over the last ten years, and I think this data can help them even more.

S&S: The latest stumbles of the GOES 13 weather satellite speak to a greater redundancy. Has that spurred you on, and helped the cause?

Miglarese: They did a great job of moving that spare satellite into action. Imagine what would have happened if that spare wasn’t there. Those satellites are multi-billion dollar satellites, and they are very important to have. We aren’t talking about multi-billion dollar satellites, we’re talking about $5 million satellites, with a constellation that is going to cost $125 million that provides a dramatic improvement on the forecast when assimilated with the other data.

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