Championing Lightning Detection

Interview with Richard Fellner

Richard Fellner

Chief Executive Officer

Nowcast GmbH

Interview Transcript

I wanted to start with your background and then Nowcast’s background. Where are you placed in the industry and why lightning detection?

I’m an engineer in electronics and I worked for 25 years in telecommunications for companies like Siemens, Nokia and with Coriant for 5 years where I was the managing director and head of sales for Europe, the Middle-East and Africa. Within this time we had some small touching points with lightning issues but not too much. I remember a case in Russia with fibre optic transmission, which were on high voltage lines and during thunderstorms we had problems. After some time we found that this was due to lightning strikes, but apart from this I didn’t have much of a connection to the topic of lightning.

However, I was keen to do something else and now as the managing director of Nowcast since the 1st of February this year, I have control of a mid-sized company and it meets the weather topics that I’m personally interested as I’m a private pilot and now we have a lot of customers from the aviation sector, which is particularly interesting for me, and last but not least it is a company with huge potential. For me, we are a hidden champion. We have grown a lot this year and already we have grown 50% so there is a lot of potential in this company.

How long has the company been in action?

The company was founded in 2002 by Dr. Hans-Dieter Betz who is the father of the company. He was a professor at MIT in Massachusetts and then mainly at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich. He was doing a lot of research surrounding the topic of lightning detection networks, and was working with the German meteorological service during a research project, and found out that all of the lightning detection networks available at the time were not satisfying his requirements. So he developed a better system and it was so good that they decided to take it from a research project and sell it to the global market. The company was set up in 2002 and became the global champion in lightning detection.

Was the Professor always looking for better ways to improve lightning detection or was it something he stumbled on during his research?

This was one of the topics he was very interested in. What he did stumble on was the fact that there was no system in the market to detect lightning strikes at a good quality. Lightning detection was a topic that was close to his heart and he is one of the few lightning ‘gurus’.

I know Daniel Betz. Is this his son and is Nowcast a family business?

It has grown as a family business but then a few years ago it was sold to the UBIMET Group. UBIMET was a customer and was providing weather services for businesses. They are an industry leader in this space and they were satisfied customer of Nowcast. They started to invest in the company and then a few years ago Nowcast was completely sold. The Professor is 77 years old now but is still around and helps me as a consultant.

So there is still a lot of academic prowess behind Nowcast?

Yes there is a lot due to the professional network of Professor Betz. He’s a strong link to the academic community and we are still working with academic organisations, supporting a lot of doctoral theses and other work.

The best companies in the industry are the ones that stay abreast of all the research and hopefully take part in the research themselves.

Of course. This gives us insights into the latest data and brings us new ideas. It also brought, in several cases, the proof that we have a leading system. Research projects that compared our system with different technologies, for example high frequency networks which have a high degree of accuracy but only in a small area, have shown that we have by far the best quality when it comes to efficiency and accuracy.

So what are the problems surrounding lightning detection?

There are many challenges when it comes to lightning detection. One of the main challenges is that the weak strokes need to be measured. Only this gives you a comprehensive prediction of the quality and development of a thunderstorm. There are also the intracloud strokes and they are often very weak. They are important to assess the strength of a storm. Even weak strokes can cause serious damages. Of course, there is a technology challenge. Nowcast has a unique antenna design, which has been optimised over the years and has an outstanding sensitivity and detection accuracy so that we can even detect weak strokes (less than 3 kilo amperes) and with a high location accuracy within 70 metres. In this area, this is a really high efficiency and accuracy. In Germany, the weather service, Allianz and the armed forces and also around the world, weather services, airports, energy companies, events organisers are all highly satisfied customers.

Another challenge is to get important information about the altitude of the cloud strikes. Nowcast is the only proven solution to create a three-dimensional picture of thunderstorm activity. This is very important for air-traffic controllers and weather services to derive the strength of a thunderstorm.

Is the technology easy to use or will there need to be a lot of training?

Not at all. The software is very easy to use. To a large extent it is self-explanatory while still providing enough detail for researchers but in general it is extremely easy to use. For instance, we recently had a big World Bank project in Nepal. They have a lot of problems with severe weather and have many fatalities from lightning strikes. Therefore, they now have installed advanced weather systems to provide better warning to regional organisations and the lightning detection network that was an important piece of the new system was installed in a very short time period, the training of the staff was no issue so it was very satisfactory.

What other examples do you have where you’ve had success?

We have installed networks in many areas of the world at the benefit for the country, the people and the organisations there is very easy business case in terms of savings.

We have installed networks in many airports around the world. Just recently in an airport in an area in Europe where there is not a lot of thunderstorm activity, they calculated that they could reduce their handling time by almost 90 minutes by using our system. Saving 90 minutes in an airport is a lot of money while also protecting the ground handling staff.

We have also just installed a system in Malaysia for an energy company and they use it to protect their people when they’re working on the high voltage lines. They also use it to detect problems in the network by correlating thunderstorm activity with electricity distribution problems. This way they know the problem was caused by a lightning strike and they don’t need to send their staff out or if there was a problem they know exactly where to send their staff.

So it is definitely a multi-industry solution?

It definitely is and the applications are in different industries, but this is not to say that it can only be used by the industries themselves. If it is used by the weather service, they are in the position to help those kinds of companies in increasing the safety of staff, saving money and other operational benefits.

The World Bank recently released a video that basically said that everything starts with hydromet. I think you’re right that hydromet is intrinsically involved in all these industries.

It brings so much benefit to a wide range of users. No matter if it is provided by the weather service or directly, it is so helpful to so many areas and the business case is very easy to calculate. The investment in a system is relatively small to the savings and benefits that you would gain from high quality data. If you can reduce the ground handling time at an airport, if air traffic control can make better decisions for the routing of planes, if an energy company saves time in finding out where issues are, if a wind farm does preemptive maintenance to check damage from a thunderstorm strike to avoid bigger damages, if you can save lives, if you can increase the efficiency of operations, the business case is very easy.