When Weathernews Inc., a private meteorological information company in Chiba, wanted to expand its business, it decided to take the unorthodox step of putting its own satellite in orbit.
"If we did things the regular way, then a company with our limited means wouldn't launch a satellite," says President Chihito Kusabiraki. "But you can't just follow the conventional wisdom if you're going to meet changing demand."
Existing satellites normally cost tens of billions of yen to launch, but Weathernews has reduced this to a few hundred million yen. The company took steps--including the installation of a small radar often used by aircraft, rather than a typical satellite observational radar--to shrink the satellite down to "ultra-small," with a weight of around 10 kilograms, thus reducing the development costs.
The satellite will hitch a ride on a Russian rocket launch to enter orbit, which will significantly lower the total outlay.
When the satellite is launched in the fall, it will help start up a new service that will provide satellite observations of sea ice inhibiting maritime shipping, thus helping to open up the Northern Sea Route connecting East Asia with Europe.
Private weather information companies analyze data from sources such as the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), plus their own surveys, to provide tailor-made forecasts, according to the needs of companies that sign up for their services.
In another way that Weathernews stands out, it also provides advisories, based on its forecasts, on how to respond to changes in the weather.
For example, Tokyo Skytree, the 634-meter tower that opened in May, is designed to protect the visitors inside from lightning that may strike the structure. But if it strikes a worker performing an inspection on the outside, he'll be fried.
So Tobu Tower Skytree, the tower's operator, decided to use a Weathernews service providing timely predictions of approaching lightning because "if the inspection work is safe, then visitors will feel safe and have fun."
Weathernews will also e-mail or otherwise directly contact a ship traversing the ocean and suggest safe and cost-efficient navigation routes. For major airlines that sign up for the company's services, when an airplane is scheduled to land during inclement weather, Weathernews will check information, including the captain's years of experience and the features of the aircraft, then provide advice such as, "You can land safely if you delay it for an hour."
When Weathernews was founded in 1986, the company started out offering meteorological services for maritime transport. Now its services are widely used by railway companies, expressway operators and others.
"Our strength is our ability to communicate with our clients," Kusabiraki says.
For each of the three fiscal years up until May this year, Weathernews has posted new record highs for sales and net profits. Overseas sales have risen to account for approximately 15 percent of total sales of 12.9 billion yen, helping the company rise to global prominence.
Even so, Weathernews remains focused on growing its business.
This fall the company will add a new business to its specialty in maritime transport services to help open up the Northern Sea Route (NSR) connecting East Asia with Europe. It will do this by launching the satellite, which will observe the ice covering the Arctic Ocean and relay information on whether ships can pass through. Private-sector weather information companies rarely launch their own satellites.
Since a few years ago, some shipping companies have used the route through the Arctic Ocean on a trial basis. Global warming is melting the ice in summer, thus allowing ships to pass through. But when and how long the route is navigable depends on the weather, so it is not a well-established one that shipping companies can use regularly.
Last summer, the Sanko Steamship Co., a Japanese company, used the NSR for the first time, carrying iron ore from Russia to China. There are currently two regular routes connecting Europe with East Asia, but by using the NSR, the distance and days traveled, as well as the fuel costs, are half those required for passing through the Suez Canal and one-third those when rounding the Cape of Good Hope at Africa's southern tip. The shipping industry is very much interested in the NSR because it also eliminates the risks posed by pirates off the coast of Somalia.
And now Weathernews has launched its Arctic Ocean ice information service. If the new route does become well-established, Weathernews hopes to sign up shipping companies across the globe.
In Japan, Weathernews makes an effort to use the information provided by its individual subscribers across the country.
There are 1.6 million paying individual subscribers across Japan who have signed up through the Internet. Of these, 300,000 are registered as "Weather Reporters" who give Weathernews information about their surroundings.
Weathernews then selects some of the gathered information that would seem helpful for its client firms and provides them with it. Reportedly, a railway company temporarily stopped a train to ensure its safety upon receiving an eyewitness report of "a cloud that looks like it may produce a tornado." Weathernews wants to register more reporters to further enhance its information network.
(This article was compiled from reports by Ken Miyazaki and Satoshi Kubo.)
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