It also works with NGOs such as Global Fishing Watch, to detect and intercept illegal fishing boats.
“By international rules every ship has to regularly say, ‘I’m here,'” Mr Platzer said. “If they stop saying that, something bad could have happened – or more likely they want to hide what they are doing.”
The company has unsuccessfully been seeking to install ground stations in Australia to complement their 30 in 17 nations ranging from the UK and the US to Portugal and South Africa.
“It’s impossible to get a licence for that frequency,” he said. “We’ve tried for many years.”
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which issues licences for such data transmissions, has been approached for comment.
Commercial demand for such data is broad, including from commodity traders “wanting to know where stuff is”, Mr Platzer said. How much coal or oil a ship is carrying and where it’s heading is one application of the data.
However, it is the improvement of predictive weather forecasting that Spire sees as some of the most important applications.
The company’s sensors detect and analyse how radio signals sent by GPS satellites get bent as they move through the atmosphere, deriving precise details of temperature and pressure.
“Meteorologists view that information as close to liquid gold,” Mr Platzer said. “It doesn’t matter how big your satellite is. You need many points of observation.”
For instance, weather balloons are typically restricted in their use, covering only about 8 per cent of the planet.
So far, the UK Met Office and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are among meteorological agencies signing up.
“Climate change is driving the frequency and intensity of weather events,” Mr Platzer said. “We definitely have seen that for some weather events, especially hurricanes, we had better paths sooner [than national agencies].”
The data’s use is typically predictive rather than reactive. When it comes to bushfires, Spire’s ability soon to measure temperature, soil moisture and predict wind speeds should assist authorities here and in the US to assess the risk of fires and how fast and wide they can spread, he said.
With $221 million raised, the private US company has plans to extend its array to 130 satellites.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.