Monday, January 07, 2019

Swarm Technologies Pokes the FCC in the Eye

          By Brian Orlotti

Silicon Valley CA based space start-up Swarm Technologies has made a formal request to the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to launch more of its controversial cubesats just a day after being fined $900,000 US (1.2Mln CDN) for illegally launching its first four nanosats without FCC permission.

The enigmatic Swarm CEO's smile. As originally outlined in the March 12th, 2018 post, "Silicon Valley Company Co-owned and Run by a Canadian has Launched Four "Unauthorized" & "Dangerous" Pico-sats," Swarm CEO and co-founder Sara Spangelo is a Canadian expatriate who still has an astronaut candidate profile on the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) website. Spangelo applied, but was not accepted, for astronaut training during Canada's fourth astronaut recruitment campaign in 2016-2017. Photo c/o Swarm.

As outlined in the January 3rd, 2019 IEEE Spectrum post, "Swarm Wants to Send Hundreds of Tiny CubeSats Into Orbit," Swarm seeks to create a low earth orbit network of 150 cubesats by 2019 that will enable global communication for internet of things (IoT) devices at a fraction of the cost of existing systems.

Other markets include low-cost connectivity to non-profits and humanitarian organizations, as well as border patrol and security applications.

The company also claims to be working with “a top automaker and other transportation companies to address connectivity solutions for connected cars, trucking, and fleet monitoring.”

Swarm is backed by Silicon Valley CA based venture capital firm Social Capital and by American entrepreneur Sky Dayton, the founder of Internet service providers EarthLink and Boingo Wireless.

Each of Swarm’s satellites is a 1/4U (11 x 11 x 2.8cm) size and weighs about a thousandth as much as the satellites for Hawthorne CA based SpaceX’s proposed Starlink orbital broadband network.

Due to their small size, they can be launched far more quickly and cheaply than traditional satellites.

However, Swarm’s satellites have drawn the ire of the FCC in the past.

In 2017, the US agency denied Swarm permission to launch for four satellites, dubbed ‘SpaceBEE's,’ on the grounds that the tiny objects would be difficult to detect.

Defying the FCC’s edict, Swarm went ahead with the launch in January 2018. The event was noted as the first ever illegal satellite launch.

The FCC responded by revoking permission for future Swarm launches and launching an investigation into the company.

The FCC also discovered that the company had carried out unauthorized tests of its technology in a Silicon Valley garage and had used weather balloons to transmit data to moving vehicles.

But those sanctions didn't last. As outlined in the December 21st, 2018 Fortune post, "How Satellite Startup Swarm Returned to Space After an Illicit Launch," Swarm successfully launched a second set of three microsats on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early December 2018.

This second launch even received FCC approval

On December 20, 2018, the FCC fined the startup $900,000 US (1.2Mln CDN) implemented a compliance plan to prevent further infractions and formally welcomed Swarm back into the club of FCC approved satellite companies.

The very next day, Swarm requested the FCC’s permission to launch and operate a constellation of 150 satellites nearly identical to the four, original SpaceBEEs.

Swarm’s new application goes to great pains to convince the FCC that its satellites are not the danger the agency considers them to be, arguing that:
  • Being so small and light, the satellites will almost certainly burn up in the atmosphere at their end of life, with no risk to people on Earth.
  • The satellites will carry radar retroreflectors which will boost their visibility to ground-based tracking stations. Similar reflectors fitted to the SpaceBEEs have proven to be at least as visible as some larger 1/2U and 1U satellites in similar orbits.
  • A study by space tracking firm LeoLabs (and paid for by Swarm) found that the SpaceBEEs could be detected more than once a day on average; better than some larger satellites. Swarm has also contracted LeoLabs to track its new network, providing a second source of orbital data to supplement the U.S. government’s Space Surveillance Network.
  • The satellites will all carry GPS chips that will regularly transmit their positions to Swarm HQ.
  • The satellites will have onboard magnetorquers, giving them limited maneuvering capability. These devices will enable them to shift from a low-drag to a high-drag state, accelerating their descent through the atmosphere. Swarm says it will instruct the satellites to go into a high-drag configuration when they near the International Space Station (ISS), minimizing the time they spend at its altitude
While there is something to be admired in Swarm’s chutzpah, going forward, cooperation with the relevant authorities may prove a less bumpy road.

While the US government has proven risk averse and even hostile to space ventures in the past, its cooperation and assistance to firms like SpaceX, Blue Origin and others prove that times have changed.

A thumb in the eye of authority is sometimes needed, but a smile and an open hand can take you further. 
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a network operator at the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), a not-for-profit network service provider to the education and research sectors.

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