Satellite IoT (& FCC offender) Swarm Technologies decloaks

After months of stealth and a run-in with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for launching satellites without permission, Swarm Technologies officially launched this week via a Medium post, website, email, and a feature piece by Bloomberg.  The satellite Internet of Things (IoT) company also announced a partnership with SweetSense, adding to its existing portfolio of commitments.

Swarm last week received a Special Temporary Authority (STA) license from the FCC, according to an email sent out by its founder and CEO Sara Spangelo.  Under the STA, Swarm can conduct limited communications with its SpaceBEE satellites between August 24, 2018 and February 24, 2019 – a stock six month run – to collect orbital and tracking data via GPS.

What Spangelo neglects to address in the email, via Medium post, and on the company’s website is exactly how the company’s satellite went into orbit without FCC permission. The first four SpaceBEE satellites are each roughly the size of a slice of Texas toast, packing in radios, storage, batteries into a compact package.  FCC regulators were concerned about being able to track such small satellites in orbit and didn’t grant permission for the company to launch the hardware. 

For reasons that have yet to be clarified, Swarm didn’t tell flight broker Spaceflight to pull its SpaceBEEs from a January 2018 launch onboard an Indian PSLV rocket. By March, the FCC became aware and pulled the company’s pending radio license to put up a pair of slightly larger 1U cubesats, add two ground stations, and roll out up to 500 ground terminals for IoT use.

Swarm’s unauthorized launch triggered tightening of licensing document review by launch providers and has caused other “picosat” satellite to come under scrutiny.  The fear among satellite operators is not being able to track – essentially “see” – smaller satellites effectively could result in a collision resulting in loss of a satellite and more space debris to contend with.

With more companies launching smaller and more satellites every year, space debris is becoming a larger problem – one underlined this week by a two millimeter hole appearing in a Soyuz spacecraft docked to the International Space Station. If Swarm’s satellites can’t be spotted, working satellites can’t be maneuvered to avoid it while Swarm’s slabs don’t have thrusters to move out of the way of a bigger satellite.

Swarm says its satellites can be effectively tracked in space via U.S. radar and third-party space monitor LeoLabs, but government agencies don’t look kindly on being defied in such a blatant fashion. It remains to be seen if Swarm will have to pay fines or have additional requests for radio licenses and launch permissions slowed for more careful review.

If it doesn’t get into any more trouble with the FCC, Swarm plans to launch a constellation of 100 tiny satellites to provide low-cost two-way communication with IoT devices around the globe.  The company announced a partnership with SweetSense, a low-cost IoT sensor company targeting water flow and other applications throughout the developing world.  Swarm has received National Science Foundation grant money and around $3 million in “seed” money to date and says it has successfully completed pilots in agriculture, maritime, ground transportation, and text messaging services, with interest from Fortune 100 companies and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Since Swarm SpaceBEE satellites are one-fourth the size of a typical 1U Cubesat, it will take fewer launches to put a network, meaning they can go into production and generate revenue faster and with less hardware and overhead than other satellite IoT startups, all other things being equal.

The SpaceBEE satellites will collect short burst data at a price point of around a penny per 250-byte message, reports Bloomberg, with Swarm “tiles” collecting data from devices and sending them upward listing at around $20 in small quantity and down to $2 per item in bulk. Swarm also plans to sell an aggregator/gateway to collect data from multiple tiles on the ground and route it upward to a passing satellite in a batch.

Another sign of optimism at Swarm: It’s hiring.  The company currently has openings for seven employees, including head of product, senior director of business development & sales, and perhaps the most important opening to date: Head of Regulatory/Spectrum Strategy (Preferred qualifications include experience working with the FCC, ITU, and other international regulatory agencies).

Doug Mohney

Doug Mohney, a principal at Cidera Analytics, has been working and writing about IT and satellite industries for over 20 years. His real world experience including stints at two start-ups, a commercial internet service provider that went public in 1997 for $150 million and a satellite internet broadband company. Follow him on Twitter at DougonTech or contact him at dmohney139 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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