You might think that being handed a whopping US $900,000 fine by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for surreptitiously launching four illegal satellites would scare off potential partners.
Not in Silicon Valley, where wrestling with regulators is more of a badge of honor than a mark of shame.
Automotive giant Ford, wireless multinational company Vodafone, Stanford University, and more than a dozen startups lined up this week to sing the praises of Swarm Technologies in filings to the FCC. But Swarm’s future is still far from certain, with rival satellite companies pushing back and the FCC having yet to approve any of its innovative small spacecraft.
Swarm plans to launch 150 tiny CubeSats into low Earth orbit (LEO) to provide a cheap global Internet of Things (IoT) communications service. The startup nearly faltered at the first hurdle when it launched its first SpaceBee satellites in January 2018 without receiving permission from the FCC.
Since then, Swarm has launched three fully-permitted experimental satellites and filed an application with the FCC for a large commercial constellation. Those experimental satellites are larger than the SpaceBees that Swarm intends to deploy in its constellation. The company has now embarked upon a charm offensive to convince the FCC that its technology is crucial to the future of the Internet of Things.
Since last weekend, 19 letters of support for Swarm, many with very similar wording, have been filed with the FCC. “Swarm’s constellation will significantly lower the costs of connectivity (by more than 40x)… [and] materially increase the reach we have while impacting global health,” gushed humanitarian sensor company SweetSense, which hopes to use Swarm’s constellation to help manage water and energy services in remote areas. SweetSense is co-developing an integrated product with Swarm and has already implemented sample satellite modems, with support from the National Science Foundation.
“Swarm’s ability to rapidly deploy its satellites [will] provide global connectivity to even the most remote locations on the planet,” enthused precision agriculture startup Arable Labs. “I firmly believe that Swarm is one of the companies that will make the world a better place with its innovative technology,” wrote the technology director of an Alaskan school district, to which Swarm has promised tracking devices for its high-tech snow vehicles.
Other supporters include a New Zealand startup collecting beehive data, a company called Aclima that produces hyperlocal pollution reports, a conservation nonprofit in Portland, and researchers from the University of Houston and Stanford University.
A letter from Jay Zaveri at venture capital firm Social Capital touted Swarm’s benefits for an autonomous boat company called Saildrone. However, Social Capital is also a major investor in Swarm, and Zaveri is one of its directors—facts he did not disclose in his letter.
Big firms are on board, too. Multinational wireless provider Vodafone has explored partnering with Swarm in emerging markets, while the largest tug operator on the U.S. Pacific coast, Foss, wrote that it has been working closely with Swarm on maritime applications for two years now.
Ford noted that it had also been working with Swarm for the past 18 months and “has a strong interest in becoming a customer of Swarm’s operational service in the US.” Ford’s telematics subsidiary, Autonomic, wrote that it had successfully completed and demonstrated a proof-of-concept connecting its transportation mobility platform using Swarm satellites, which it envisages as a “core component” of its system.
Ford was one of several companies that stressed to IEEE Spectrum that it would not deploy any commercial services with Swarm until the relevant regulatory approvals are in place.
Swarm currently has seven fully-trackable SpaceBEEs deployed, completing an orbit every 94 minutes! We’re able to monitor them in real-time from our Mission Control room here at Swarm HQ - check out this time lapse! #SmallSat #IoT pic.twitter.com/NNxEzWTmIV— Swarm Technologies (@SwarmInternet) March 28, 2019
Swarm executives also had four face-to-face meetings with FCC commissioners in February to make their case.
But while Swarm and its partners pour honey into the FCC’s ears, others are being equally liberal with vinegar. On Monday, SpaceX filed its comments on Swarm’s proposed constellation. Elon Musk’s space company believes that despite the SpaceBee’s tiny dimensions (just 113 mm x 113 mm x 26 mm), the satellites “pose a serious threat to the International Space Station, those working aboard, and other nearby high-value systems.”
Part of the problem is that Swarm’s CubeSats lack thrusters, and thus are unable to perform speedy evasive maneuvers should a collision with another spacecraft or piece of space junk seem likely. SpaceX also thinks that Swarm is misusing NASA’s software for calculating orbital collision risks, which it says was not designed for such small satellites.
Moreover, “throughout its application, Swarm truncates non-zero results to zero with no explanation.” (Ironically, some experts believe that SpaceX pulled something similar with recent claims that its own Starlink Internet satellites will pose “zero risk” to humans on Earth).
The other Swarm nay-sayer is Orbcomm, a company that already has an active constellation of IoT satellites, using the same VHF frequency bands that Swarm is targeting. Swarm thinks it can squeeze in to these so-called ‘Little LEO’ frequencies without causing any interference to Orbcomm’s established service. Orbcomm, to put it mildly, disagrees.
In a petition to the FCC to dismiss Swarm’s application [PDF], Orbcomm thunders, “The application not only blatantly mischaracterizes Orbcomm’s spectrum rights… but also ignores and obfuscates the FCC’s established spectrum sharing policies.”
Orbcomm accuses Swarm of exceeding permitted power density limits from future user terminals, ignoring previous FCC rulings, and riding roughshod over procedures for new satellite operators.
Correspondence between the companies and the FCC, obtained by IEEE Spectrum under a Freedom of Information request, shows that the companies were not always at loggerheads. In July 2017, Orbcomm consented to the original, illegally-launched Swarm satellites using a narrow channel within the disputed Little LEO band.
A year later, when Swarm was planning its next experimental mission, the company asked Orbcomm for permission to use the same channel again. This time Orbcomm refused, citing interference concerns.
Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo then offered to use lower power levels or tune the satellites’ transmissions, and dropped a request to use a second frequency band for uplinks. “Swarm will gladly amend the application again to accommodate Orbcomm’s needs,” she wrote.
Eventually, Orbcomm acquiesced, with the proviso that Swarm’s satellites “not [be] used for commercial operations of any kind by Swarm or any other party in any location in the world.” Three Swarm spacecraft duly launched on a SpaceX rocket in December.
The fragile truce did not last long. Within weeks of the launch, and apparently without consulting Orbcomm, Swarm filed its application for a full constellation. “Swarm made no effort whatsoever to contact Orbcomm to coordinate the Swarm [constellation], despite the fact that Swarm had been coordinating some (but not all) of its experimental applications with Orbcomm,” the company claims.
This week’s revelation that Swarm’s supposedly experimental satellites have been used for demonstrations and integration efforts with commercial partners will no doubt infuriate Orbcomm further.
At the end of March, Swarm tweeted an image of its latest diminutive experimental satellite, saying “The next two SpaceBees will be deployed into LEO soon [by] Rocket Lab!” even though the mission has yet to be approved by the FCC.
At least 19 eager partner organizations are hoping that it will happen, but this time, the FCC has the final say.
Mark Harris is an investigative science and technology reporter based in Seattle, with a particular interest in robotics, transportation, green technologies, and medical devices. He’s on Twitter at @meharris and email at mark(at)meharris(dot)com. Email or DM for Signal number for sensitive/encrypted messaging.