Tomorrow.io Co-Founder Explains Why the Software Company Turned to Space
While Tomorrow.io may have plans to deploy a satellite constellation, but didn’t start out as a space company. Instead, the weather forecasting software company looked at its path for growth, and the founders realized they needed data from space
Tomorrow.io pitches itself as a weather intelligence company — it sells software that helps companies and governments deal with the business impact of weather. Now, the company is developing a constellation of 32 radar-equipped satellites, designed to provide a global precipitation dataset updated hourly. It recently took a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) deal to go public at a $1.2 billion valuation.
Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer Rei Goffer spoke with Via Satellite about weather intelligence and Tomorrow.io’s decision to build a constellation.
“Weather intelligence is basically the ability to take action. To get actionable insights from a software tool in a scalable fashion for any type of application, [whether it be] a construction company, airline, power utility, or insurance company,” Goffer said. “It’s not just about getting a better forecast, it’s also about translating these forecasts into actionable insights.”
For example, a utility company in India began using the platform before cyclone Amphan hit the continent in May 2020. Using information from Tomorrow.io, the company was able to pre-position maintenance crews near the towers that were set to be hit by the highest winds and most at risk of power line damage. The crews were able to make fixes before there was an outage that would have impacted tens of millions of people.
The company reports about 120 enterprise customers today, including Delta Air Lines, Ford Motor Company, and Amazon Web Services (AWS). Tomorrow.io reported approximately $11 million in revenue in 2021, and expects to make $28 million this year.
Goffer said the company takes traditional weather data provided by governments around the world, and uses a proprietary forecasting model that translates it into actionable data.
But there is a major information gap that is pushing Tomorrow.io to space — precipitation. Goffer said precipitation is difficult to measure, it’s currently measured by rain gauges on the ground and ground-based radar that is expensive to maintain and only common in the U.S., Western Europe, Japan, and coastal Australia. More than 5 billion people live outside of this radar coverage, and coverage does not extend to over the oceans.
“That gap has tremendous implications on people’s lives from not knowing if it’s going to rain, to getting hit by floods and cyclones without warning,” Goffer said. “You can’t do crop insurance, fly safely, or drive safely. There’s an infinite amount of use cases for that we take for granted living in the U.S.”
NASA has launched the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM) and Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) satellites to try to solve this issue, but these satellites do not have a high revisit rate.
Because of satellite technology developments, Tomorrow.io found that it could develop a radar-sensor that can see precipitation from space at a cost that made it economically feasible. To do this, the company hired John Springmann, who developed BlackSky’s constellation and the initial technical architecture for Rocket Lab’s Photon satellite program. Tomorrow.io is building the sensor, and manufacturer Astro Digital is building the satellite bus for the first two demonstration satellites. The first launches are planned for late 2022 and the company is actively sourcing vendors for follow-on satellite buses.
Goffer said Tomorrow.io has chosen to use partners for parts of the space value chain that are commoditized, like the bus, downlinks, and launch, but wanted to own its own satellites versus using the space-as-a-service model many companies are starting to offer. He said after a deep analysis, Tomorrow.io found “huge gaps” between the pitch of space-as-a-service and the reality.
The company says this will expand radar coverage worldwide to cover each point on the globe once every hour on average, compared to the two- to three-day revisit rate of existing spaceborne radar missions. The U.S. Air Force is encouraging the company’s mission, and awarded Tomorrow.io a $19.3 million contract to support deployment of its first four satellites.
Goffer said these satellites will provide invaluable information about how weather travels around the world that could impact decisions like hurricane evacuations, and help companies and governments adapt to extreme weather events brought about by climate change.
“The need is global. Nexrad, the terrestrial radar system in the U.S., has huge blind spots, especially around low-income communities and lower populated areas,” Goffer said. “Weather happens everywhere. A storm that’s going to hit the East Coast starts closer to Africa in the ocean, and travels for days before it hits. We have very limited understanding of what’s going on with the storm until it hits land, which is way too late.”
Goffer maintains Tomorrow.io’s identity as a software company that is going to space to enable its mission.
“All the Earth observation companies started with a sensor, discounting the need for who cares about the data and how the data is being used. Our case is completely different. We are a software company in a certain vertical, which we know and understand very well, and we have customers. We identified a gap that can be solved from space, and so our journey to space is a means to an end,” he said. “We’re very proud to go into space as a software company that will remain a software company, taking leverage of space.”