The people who take gas and electric meter readings could be replaced by a satellite now orbiting the Earth and capable of reading as many as 20,000 meters in as little as 12 minutes.
Final Analysis Inc., a small, privately owned technology company in Greenbelt, built the satellite and launched it Jan. 24 from near Moscow aboard a Cosmos rocket.
The key, though, may not lie in the technology but in whether the company can reduce costs enough to make it affordable.
Peggy Mulloy, a spokeswoman for Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., said the utility has looked into the system. "But at this point in time [we] don't think it is cost effective for us. It's not practical, cost wise. Apparently it costs a bit more than the technology we are using."
Nader Modanlo, president of Final Analysis, said that the 252-pound satellite is still in its testing phase, "but everything seems to be working fine."
He said his company was the first in the United States to be granted an export license by the Commerce Department to launch a commercial satellite on a Russian rocket.
Gwen Moore Holliday, a spokeswoman with the Commerce Department, declined to comment on Final Analysis' license to launch on a Russian rocket. She said it was department policy to neither confirm nor deny that a license has been granted.
In addition to recording the amount of gas and electricity used by homes or factories, Mr. Modanlo said the same technology can be used to read the amount of rain, snowfall or humidity at any spot on Earth. It can also be applied to tracking the cargo on a truck making its way from Baltimore to the West Coast.
Mr. Modanlo said the satellite in orbit is an experimental craft to prove that the technology actually works.
The company's plan is to launch 26 satellites into near polar orbits by the year 2000. "At that time," Mr. Modanlo said, "you would be able to look up every minute and there would be a satellite over head."
He said the company is working with a small group of utilities in developing the technology, but declined to identify them. "It's a very competitive business," he said, with at least five other companies developing similar technology.
BGE is not one of those companies, although, Mr. Modanlo said, "We sure would like to work with them."
BGE's current technology involves using a meter with an electronic chip that can send and receive information. A worker can take readings with a portable receiver from 1,000 yards away.
The utility has said that it is investing $35.5 million in its project and has installed more than 30,000 meters that can be read without entering a home.
Ms. Mulloy said BGE also was concerned with sharing the satellite data network with other utilities, saying that meter readings "are confidential information."
For the system to work, Mr. Modanlo explained, the utility would have to put a remote terminal on each meter that would send a signal to a satellite 625 miles above the Earth. The satellite would feed the information to a ground station in Logan, Utah.
Produced in mass quantities, he said, the price of the terminals could be about $50 each.
Making its service affordable is part of Final Analysis' business plan. At a time when a single satellite can cost $200 million, or more, the company is talking about building and launching 26 small satellites for about $150 million.
To reduce the cost of its launching, Mr. Modanlo said the company's satellite was packaged with a Russian navigation satellite and a satellite belonging to Sweden and launched on a single Cosmos rocket.
He said the plan to launch as many as six of its meter-reading satellites on a single rocket.
Mr. Modanlo said he founded the company in 1992 with partner Michael Ahan. "We have poured our life savings into this company," he said.
Final Analysis' satellite was designed at its office on Greenway Center Drive, but was built at its factory in Logan.
Donald Erat, the company's director of business development and one of only 26 employees, said the company has kept a low profile by design.
"We wanted to solve the technical problems, get the satellite built and make sure it worked before announcing anything," he said.