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American company that broke rules to launch satellites on Indian rocket faces hiccups

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Swarm Technologies’s space internet is meant to give affordable connectivity to sensors, small devices and phones in remote locations.

In January, Swarm Technologies Inc. placed four, tiny satellites on a rocket owned by the Indian government, sent them to space and started transmitting data to earth. What made this an unprecedented feat was that Swarm did all of it despite objections by U.S. regulators. As far as anyone can remember, this was the first example of an American company placing a satellite into orbit without Uncle Sam’s blessing, and the results were as expected. The Federal Communications Commission forced Swarm to disable the satellites and warned that the company’s long-term plans to build a type of space internet were in peril.

It turns out, though, that time and good lawyers can heal some wounds. Last Friday, Swarm received permission from the FCC to reactivate its satellites. The reprieve is temporary and bars commercial use. But Swarm now hopes it can get 100 satellites, called SpaceBees, into orbit by the end of next year and build the cheapest space-based data network of all time. “We’re sort of making a 1996 version of the internet,” says Sara Spangelo, co-founder and chief executive officer of Swarm. “But it will be everywhere, and anyone on the planet can afford it.”

For years, people trying to access the internet from remote locations have been forced to pay high fees for slow and spotty service. To fix this, a slew of companies have recently proposed new kinds of satellite networks that they say will blanket the earth with better internet connections. Most notably, Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and the startup OneWeb have announced plans to surround our planet with hundreds to thousands of satellites that could deliver broadband-level data speeds just about anywhere. It will take years and many billions of dollars to roll out such networks, and that’s assuming the underlying technology and rocket launches needed to fly all this hardware will arrive as promised.

Swarm has a different take on the space internet idea, which is part of the reason it became so controversial. Its SpaceBees are a quarter of the size of the smallest satellites typically put into orbit and a tiny fraction of the bus-sized satellites often used for communications. The satellites are so small that the FCC feared they would be undetectable, which would make it very tricky to monitor the machines and make sure they don’t bump into other equipment orbiting the earth.

The small size has some big advantages—skirmishes with federal authorities notwithstanding. Swarm can build them for a fraction of the cost of traditional satellites. They can also squeeze into the spare nooks and crannies on rockets. This is key at a time when a glut of satellite startups has made it difficult to find a ride into space. Swarm can, in effect, hitchhike on a rocket and put up dozens of satellites per launch.

There are, however, limitations. Swarm cannot pack as much communications gear on the satellites, which makes SpaceBees less sophisticated than rival equipment. Where SpaceX and OneWeb, for example, want to provide superfast speeds and always-on connections, Swarm intends to handle small blips of data periodically. “We think of it sort of like tweets,” Spangelo says. “You can send thousands of 250-byte tweets per day.”

The Swarm network won’t be able to handle a Fortnite game or let you stream Netflix from a cruise ship. Instead, it’s meant to give a global internet heartbeat to sensors, small devices and phones in remote locations. A farmer, for example, could use the Swarm network to transmit crop and soil data from devices in her fields. Or a shipping company could transmit data about its containers and goods while at sea. “There are also people with no internet, and the ability to send 10 messages a day can significantly impact their lives,” Spangelo says. “It gives them access to health care, finance and weather information.”

Making such tiny satellites required some serious technical chops. Spangelo, 32, has a doctorate in aerospace engineering and spent years working on space projects at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab and then at Google. She started the business with Ben Longmier, the 36-year-old chief technology officer. Before Swarm, he co-founded Aether Industries, a high-altitude balloon company that Apple Inc. acquired in 2015, and Apollo Fusion, a startup working on propulsion systems for satellites.

Swarm, founded in 2017, has $3 million in seed funding—some of it from venture capital firm Social Capital—and another $1 million from National Science Foundation grants. Much of their engineering work has taken place in Longmier’s workshop and in a small office connected to the Palo Alto Airport in Silicon Valley.

Unlike most satellites, SpaceBees don’t use a propulsion system, and they lack many of the control and alignment gizmos typically needed to make sure they’re in the right position. To get its satellites to spread out and provide coverage across the earth, Swarm tweaked the amount of drag they experience by altering the satellites’ shape and mass distribution. Swarm also discovered a novel way to stop its satellites from tumbling by using the natural forces of gravity and drag instead of mechanical components.

Swarm’s long-term plan is to sell what it calls tiles for $20 each initially and then $2 a pop if an avalanche of orders arrives. These little gadgets can be placed on just about any earthly object, gather data from nearby devices and broadcast them directly to the satellite network. Swarm will also sell a type of wireless router that can be used to collect data from many tiles and funnel the information in bulk to a satellites.

Spangelo wants to make the network affordable enough that any industry can use it. It will cost about 1 cent for each 250-byte message, which would be one-tenth to one-hundredth the price of existing satellite data services. “A container can say that it’s not at the right temperature for transporting dairy products across the ocean, and a message can be sent back to change the temperature,” Spangelo says.

Swarm still has many pressing questions to answer before it can set off on these ultra-ambitious plans. An FCC spokesman said the agency is reviewing whether it will take some kind of enforcement action against Swarm for putting its satellites up without authorization or eventually grant commercial use. The aerospace industry is watching closely to see if the FCC makes an example of Swarm. “This is something that could become a bigger problem now that it’s become easier and cheaper to build and launch small satellites,” says Tim Farrar, a satellite and telecom consultant at TMF Associates Inc.

Spangelo, though, remains optimistic now that the two parties have a working relationship. The company has already applied to send more satellites into orbit via an upcoming SpaceX launch. “We’re waiting on a license for those and are very hopeful it will arrive soon,” she says.

To make the tiny satellites more visible, SpaceBees are equipped with a new type of reflector created by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. LeoLabs, a startup that maps objects in orbit and tracks space debris, has been able to monitor the four SpaceBees in orbit over the past few months and so, too, has the Space Surveillance Network, which tracks all satellites for the U.S.

Beyond the technology, Swarm has a lot to prove. The business is built on the back of a collection of much-hyped ideas. After all, it’s making a space network for the so-called Internet of Things. Spangelo contends that Swarm already has a large amount of interest from agriculture, automotive and government customers, along with humanitarian organizations.

Spangelo declined to comment on whether she regretted the decision to launch in January. “We had these nine glorious days where all the satellites were working, the solar panels worked, and the radios worked,” she says. “There was a party, and then there was a little bit of a rough patch, and we’ve been working closely with the commission ever since.” – Bloomberg

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