A small company in Camp Springs, Md., turns the free weather data from government satellites into computer-generated, living-color weather maps that are replacing the familiar black-and-white maps on an increasing number of television stations nationwide.
Environmental Satellite Data Inc. uses a microwave dish to intercept government transmissions of raw data signals received from the geostationary operation environmental satellite (GEOS). ESD then uses a sophisticated computer software package to translate the data into vivid color weather pictures.
The pictures, along with data compiled from radar and 1,000 weather stations scattered across the country, are then transmitted via telephone lines to more than 100 television stations in the United States and one in Canada. Local stations using the service include Washington channels 9 (WDVM) and 7 (WJLA) and Baltimore's channel 11 (WBAL).
In Washington, meteorologists Gordon Barnes of WDVM and Gary Shore of WJLA use the system. "Instead of using the black-and-white pictures we used before, we now have it in color, and it looks better for television," said Barnes.
The National Weather Service provides black-and-white pictures and forecasts free to print and broadcast media and to the telephone company. The ESD television service offers 20 different satellite picture graphics, including precipitation, temperature, different heights and densities of cloud cover and relative humidity.
ESD charges $300 to $1,000 per month for its color transmissions, based on the number of images received hourly by individual clients.
The company has a formal agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to operate a $30,000 microwave receiver on the roof of the World Weather Building in Camp Springs, where NOAA also has offices. The satellite transmits data to NOAA's antenna at the Suitland Federal Center, four miles away. The data is then relayed to NOAA's offices at the World Weather Building.
ESD's location allows it to intercept the microwave relay signal at the NOAA offices without the need for a direct satellite antenna, which would cost $100,000.
"They can get any data from that microwave line and whatever they do to get it is all right if they do not interfere with our transmission," said Jerry Glover, executive officer of the National Environmental, Satellite, Data and Information Service, the agency that operates the NOAA satellites.
The data is free to anyone, providing they do not interfere with NOAA, Glover said. During the past few months, a user fee has been considered on activities that do not directly benefit the public, but nothing has been finalized, he said.
ESD president Tim McManus said it is too soon to judge potential effects on the company of the Reagan administration's plan to sell part of the government's weather data gathering systems to private companies.
The groundwork for ESD was laid in mid-1980 by Larry Hambrick, a former NOAA employe, and his brother Terry, then bowling division operating vice president for Fair Lanes Inc. Terry left Fair Lanes to work full-time on developing the business while Larry worked on the technical aspects.
In March 1981, Fair Lanes Inc., a Baltimore-based firm operating 90 bowling lane centers, agreed to provide venture capital to get ESD started. Three months later, ESD landed its first television contract.
In January 1983, Terry Hambrick became executive vice president of marketing for ESD. At the same time, McManus, Fair Lanes vice president of planning and development, joined ESD as president. Fair Lanes owns 22 percent of ESD.
ESD management estimates that its revenues can reach $5 million in three to five years based on television and weather forecasting markets alone. This assumes no additional input of capital, despite expenses of about $800,000 a year on additional computer hardware and software development. ESD revenues for the year ending Dec. 31, 1982, were $500,000 and current-year revenue is expected to hit $1.5 million.
Originally, Hambrick said, he envisioned selling the processed data from the two environmental satellites to research centers, aviation, shipping and construction interests. But the high start-up costs of reaching these specialized markets was countered by the enthusiastic response from television broadcasters. That shifted the early emphasis of marketing the weather pictures to television, Hambrick said.
Only one geostationary operation environmental satellite is currently operational. The GOES West failed soon after launch in December and is scheduled to be replaced in April. The GOES East is orbiting above the Atlantic Ocean and supplies all the data for ESD pictures.
Larry Hambrick than contacted Mike Kleist, another former NOAA employe, who was working for Systems Electronics Laboratory Inc. in Melbourne, Fla.
Hambrick asked Kleist to join ESD and to begin creating a software package to sift the raw GOES data and transform it into usable pictures. Kleist then convinced three of his coworkers at the electronics firm to move to ESD.
Larry Hambrick also picked up two more former NOAA employes to round out the technical staff. Vince Oliver came to ESD to provide expertise in satellite data after leading NOAA's satellite program since its inception in the early 1960s. Art Decotiis, who had been a weather data analyst for 18 years at NOAA, provides expertise for the forecasting service that ESD plans in the future.
ESD also plans to market a color graphics computer terminal to receive the satellite pictures beginning in April. The terminal, manufactured by Phoenix Computer Graphics Inc. of Lafayette, La., will cut the average cost of current models now being marketed from $40,000 to less the $20,000, Larry Hambrick said.
In June, the company hopes to begin nationwide transmission of its satellite data via a communications satellite.