Swarm Seeks Fresh FCC Satellite Launch Clearance While Still in Penalty Box

The startup that launched four satellites without permission in January has filed a new application

Illustration of Swarm Technologies' satellites in low earth orbit
Illustration: iStockphoto; Satellite: Swarm Technologies
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Swarm Technologies, the stealthy Internet of Things startup that launched four satellites illegally in January, is asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for permission to launch three more, even before the FCC has decided on a punishment for its first offence.

Its new application says that Swarm “urgently needs to demonstrate the viability of its proposed satellite-based communications network to technical and business partners, potential investors, and potential customers.” It is proposing to launch three Cubesats on a SpaceX rocket due to take off from Vandenberg Air Force in California later this year.

The application comes as the FCC continues to mull whether or how to punish Swarm for the unauthorized launch of four tiny SpaceBee satellites on an Indian rocket in January. The FCC denied Swarm’s original application for the SpaceBees last year, citing concerns about their trackability from the surface and thus the possibility of collisions on orbit.

Swarm allowed the SpaceBees to launch anyway, causing the FCC to set aside a subsequent license for the company to launch four larger satellites in March. The March launch was meant “to permit assessment of [Swarm’s] qualifications to be a Commission licensee.”

The latest application is very similar to the one that the FCC set aside. It covers three satellites designed to test Swarm’s innovative Internet of Things (IoT) communications electronics, which the company says could be orders of magnitude cheaper than existing systems. These systems could open the door to myriad applications such as new vehicle tracking and agricultural technologies.

While one of the satellites appears to be identical to the ones covered in the set-aside application, two others are significantly heavier. This could indicate that Swarm has taken advantage of the delay to modify them. Swarm did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The new satellites, called SpaceBee-9, -10, and -11, will test communications with ground stations in Silicon Valley and the state of Georgia.

Swarm wrote to the FCC, insisting that its application “is consistent with the Commission’s longstanding goals of promoting efficient spectrum use, and will not adversely impact any third party given that Swarm intends to communicate only with carefully coordinated U.S.-based ground stations.”

The FCC says that although its enforcement inquiry is still ongoing, it is reviewing Swarm’s latest application. However, in April, it issued an advisory notice for small satellite operators that read: “Compliance with requirements for licensing of satellite communications is not optional. Failure to comply with FCC requirements can and will result in enforcement action.” Such actions often include hefty monetary fines. One unsettled question is how much of the $740,000 the National Science Foundation has awarded Swarm to help develop its technologies, will have to be paid to get the company back in regulators’ good graces.

Swarm’s decision to file another launch application before its first infraction is adjudicated shows just how competitive the emerging IoT communications market is. The SpaceX rocket aboard which Swarm hopes to fly will be carrying satellites for at least three other IoT companies. Among them is Hiber, which hopes to use the same 148-megahertz uplink band Swarm is relying on.

“The project milestones for the Swarm satellites align with the launch of the vehicles into orbit, including a delivery of the spacecraft one month prior to launch of the SpaceX mission,” writes [pdf] Swarm in its FCC application. With SpaceX targeting a launch date as early as 1 September, that leaves just 7 weeks for Swarm to smooth things over with the FCC.

This time, odds are against Swarm being able to sneak its satellites onto orbit, even if it wanted to. Spaceflight, the company integrating satellites for the SpaceX mission, told IEEE Spectrum that, “While it is our customers’ responsibility to secure their own FCC licensing, Spaceflight’s policy is to verify all the licenses prior to integration, and we will not launch any spacecraft that does not have the proper licensing in place.”

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