FCC Accuses Stealthy Startup of Launching Rogue Satellites

The U.S. communications agency says tiny Internet of Things satellites from Swarm Technologies could endanger other spacecraft

8 min read

India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket being launched on January, 12 2018.
India's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle rocket launched on 12 January 2018.
Photo: Antrix

On 12 January, a Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket blasted off from India’s eastern coast. While its primary cargo was a large Indian mapping satellite, dozens of secondary CubeSats from other countries traveled along with it. Seattle-based Planetary Resources supplied a spacecraft that will test prospecting tools for future asteroid miners, Canadian company Telesat launched a broadband communications satellite, and a British Earth-observation mission called Carbonite will capture high-definition video of the planet’s surface.

Also on board were four small satellites that probably should not have been there. SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 were briefly described by the Indian space agency ISRO as “two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices from the United States. No operator was specified, and only ISRO publicly noted that they successfully reached orbit the same day.

IEEE Spectrum can reveal that the SpaceBees are almost certainly the first spacecraft from a Silicon Valley startup called Swarm Technologies, currently still in stealth mode. Swarm was founded in 2016 by one engineer who developed a spacecraft concept for Google and another who sold his previous company to Apple. The SpaceBees were built as technology demonstrators for a new space-based Internet of Things communications network.

Swarm believes its network could enable satellite communications for orders of magnitude less cost than existing options. It envisages the worldwide tracking of ships and cars, new agricultural technologies, and low cost connectivity for humanitarian efforts anywhere in the world. The four SpaceBees would be the first practical demonstration of Swarm’s prototype hardware and cutting-edge algorithms, swapping data with ground stations for up to eight years.

The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds. The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

On Wednesday, the FCC sent Swarm a letter revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission with four more satellites, due to launch next month. A pending application for a large market trial of Swarm’s system with two Fortune 100 companies could also be in jeopardy.

In fact, the FCC told the startup that the agency would assess “the impact of the applicant’s apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites… on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee.” If Swarm cannot convince the FCC otherwise, the startup could lose permission to build its revolutionary network before the wider world even knows the company exists.

An unauthorized launch would also call into question the ability of secondary satellite ‘ride-share’ companies and foreign launch providers to comply with U.S. space regulations.

Swarm Technologies, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is the brainchild of two talented young aerospace engineers. Sara Spangelo, its CEO, is a Canadian who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, before moving to Google in 2016. Spangelo’s astronaut candidate profile at the Canadian Space Agency says that while at Google, she led a team developing a spacecraft concept for its moonshot X division, including both technical and market analyses.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

(Parent company Alphabet told Spectrum that X, which is now a separate company from Google, explores and kills hundreds of ideas each year, and that Spangelo’s work had nothing to do with Google’s recent hypersonics research with NASA, revealed in Spectrum earlier this week).

Swarm CFO Benjamin Longmier has an equally impressive resume. In 2015, he sold his near-space balloon company Aether Industries to Apple, before taking a teaching post at the University of Michigan. He is also co-founder of Apollo Fusion, a company producing an innovative electric propulsion system for satellites.

Diagram from Swarm Technologies FCC filing.This illustration from a March 2018 FCC filing by Swarm Technologies shows the proposed network architecture for the startup’s IoT satellites.Image: Swarm Technologies

The idea of Swarm’s networks is deceptively simple. Any future Internet of Things (IoT) will require pervasive connectivity for billions of trackers and sensors to exchange data over the Internet. However, there are only sporadic wireless networks in many rural and undeveloped areas, and none at all at sea.

Swarm would provide solar-powered gateways that would collect data from nearby IoT devices using Bluetooth, LoRa, or Wi-Fi, then beam them up to an orbiting SpaceBee using VHF radio. When the SpaceBee passed over a ground station that was connected to the Internet, it would beam the data down again, and on to its end user.

Data is encrypted in both directions and each SpaceBee would transmit only about once a minute, accepting uplinks or initiating downlinks depending on which devices were below. While she was a graduate student at the University of Michigan, Spangelo wrote several papers describing models and algorithms to maximize the data flow over just such a network.

In its application for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant in 2016, Swarm said that its integrated sensor and data relay platforms were less than 1/10,000 the mass and power, and 400 times cheaper, than those in existing satellite systems like Iridium. The NSF has awarded Swarm over US $220,000 to date.

In April of last year, Swarm filed its first application with the FCC for a test fleet of four satellites called BEEs, standing for Basic Electronic Elements, and two ground stations. Each satellite would be just 10 centimeters (cm) x 10 cm x 2.8 cm tall—about one quarter the size of a standard 10 cm cube, or 1U, CubeSat. The four would be launched from an Indian PSLV rocket stacked together, then spring open in space to enter diverging orbits.

This four-for-the-price-of-one deal would keep launch fees low, and Swarm’s minimal website proudly claims that it’s building “the world’s smallest two-way communications satellites.” However, miniaturizing the technology would come at a cost.

“As an object gets below 1U in size, it gets difficult to track, which means it’s harder to predict if there’s going to be a conjunction with another satellite,” says Marcus Holzinger, an aerospace professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert on orbital safety. “Anything that size impacting at orbital velocities can be catastrophic.”

Swarm Technologies had realized that the small size of its BEEs might be a problem. It installed a GPS device in each satellite that would broadcast its position when requested. It also covered each of the satellite’s four smallest faces with an experimental passive radar reflector developed by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. According to Swarm’s FCC application, this would increase the BEE’s radar profile by a factor of 10.

But the FCC was not buying it. After correspondence back and forth through the summer, the FCC sent Swarm a letter in early December. In it, Anthony Serafini, chief of the FCC’s Experimental Licensing Branch, noted that the radar reflector only operated in a certain frequency band, corresponding to “a small portion” of America’s ground-based Space Surveillance Network. He also worried that GPS data would only be available while the satellite was functional.

Holzinger shares the agency’s concerns. “If there’s a software glitch, the satellite is going to become a passive piece of debris,” he says. “And while the reflector is certainly more robust, it may not amplify radar from a sensor using [a different] frequency band.”

Serafini wrote: “In the absence of tracking at the same level as available for [1U] objects… the ability of operational spacecraft to reliably assess the need for and plan effective collision avoidance maneuvers will be reduced or eliminated. Accordingly, we cannot conclude that a grant of this application is in the public interest.” The FCC had dismissed Swarm’s application, and that should have been the end of the matter.

“If there’s a software glitch, the satellite is going to become a passive piece of debris.”

Swarm apparently moved swiftly on. In January 2018, the company filed an application for four new satellites, this time with a larger, more conventional 1U design. Since its application the previous April, Swarm wrote that it had lined up two (unnamed) Fortune 100 companies for paid pilot programs, with 15 additional companies in agriculture, shipping, and other markets watching closely. The U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Special Operations Command has also expressed interest in using Swarm’s network for “tracking and geo-locating a large number of items on the ground and at sea.”

Swarm’s new plan would be to send the four larger satellites on a Rocket Lab launch from New Zealand in April. Rocket Lab’s Electron had just delivered its first payload to orbit, becoming the latest vehicle offering low-cost satellite launches. This time, Swarm’s application sailed through the FCC in a matter of weeks.

On Monday, Swarm shared details of its two market trials in yet another FCC application. It now wants permission to install two more downlink ground stations and up to 500 uplink gateways around the United States, for the next year. Swarm wrote that it has been in touch with more than 125 potential end users, had received a second NSF grant to provide cheap connectivity for humanitarian efforts, and announced a partnership with NASA’s Ames Research Center. Everything was looking up for the young company.

That all changed on Wednesday morning, with an email from Serafini to Spangelo setting aside permission for April’s Rocket Lab mission. The FCC believes that Swarm launched and is operating its original small satellites, despite having been forbidden to do so.

Comparison of the rendering of a BEE with deployed antenna from a 2017 document with an ISRO image of a SpaceBEE satellite.Below, a rendering from a 2017 FCC document filed by Swarm Technologies shows a BEE with its antenna deployed. Above, is an image from ISRO of a SpaceBEE satellite.Images: Top: ISRO; Bottom: Swarm Technologies

The FCC declined requests for an interview or comment, but the evidence for the January PSLV’s mysterious SpaceBees being Swarm’s BEE satellites is overwhelming. Swarm’s April 2017 application notes the satellites were due to launch on the very same PSLV mission, and refers to the devices as “Space BEEs” at several points. Websites dedicated to tracking operational satellites show the SpaceBees in orbits virtually identical to those specified in Swarm’s application.

Swarm did not respond to multiple requests from Spectrum, with any details about its activities.

One serious question is how Swarm was able to launch its satellites without FCC authorization. Jenny Barna, director of launch for Spire Global, a satellite data company with more than 50 CubeSats in orbit, says, “If you’re a secondary passenger, you typically have to produce evidence of a license before you integrate.” Integration is the process of organizing a rocket’s payload of satellites for launch.

The Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle's heat shield being closed, with the 31 satellites on view.The fairing closes on the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle, which is carrying 31 satellites.Photo: ISRO

However, Barna admits that getting a license when you are hitching a ride with a larger satellite can be tricky. “The process is onerous by the nature of regulatory work, made worse by the fact that it’s not set up for the way that secondary customers get launches,” she says. “The Silicon Valley way of doing things is technically pretty iterative. You might not be quite sure what frequencies you will land on... or where your ride is going to come from. We’ve had satellites on the launch pad before the FCC approves it, and then they approve it at the last second.”

Paperwork filed with the FCC by Swarm Technologies shows that it was planning to use Spaceflight, a Seattle-based launch services company, to get its satellites on board the PSLV. Spaceflight’s website shows that it did in fact supply 19 of the 31 satellites for January’s PSLV launch, including some with the SpaceBees unique 0.25U dimensions.

Last year, Spaceflight senior mission manager Adam Hadaller told Spectrum that it checked all its customers’ safety regulations and communication licenses before launch. However, in response to questions this week, Spaceflight would only say: “Spaceflight has never knowingly launched a customer who has been denied an FCC license. It is the responsibility of our customers to secure all FCC licenses.”

Neither Spaceflight nor ISRO could immediately confirm whether they routinely check launch customers’ FCC licenses. If they do not, there would seem to be little to stop satellite makers from deploying any device they choose into orbit.

Regardless, future spacecraft and astronauts will now have to deal with four difficult-to-see satellites, each the size of hardback books, whizzing around the planet. “Even at that size, you’re talking about a substantial energy transfer should they hit something,” says Holzinger. “In most cases it would be an explosive break-up, where all the pieces fly away from each other very quickly.”

As it waits to hear the FCC’s decision on future SpaceBee missions, Swarm Technologies will surely be hoping to avoid a similar fate down here on Earth.

The Conversation (0)