Swarm Asks FCC for Permission to Have Its Rogue Satellites Phone Home

A new application seeks approval to beam the company's unlicensed CubeSats’ location, course, and speed down to Earth—and then share that data online

Illustration of Swarm's cube sats trying to contact home
Illustration: IEEE Spectrum; Images: Swarm Technologies; iStockphoto
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Ever since Swarm Technologies illegally launched four experimental satellites in January, the tiny spacecraft have been orbiting the Earth in silence, awaiting judgement from a furious U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Now the stealthy startup wants to briefly activate the satellites, probably with the aim of placating the FCC and smoothing the way for future launches.

new FCC application, filed late last week, is seeking authority to legally transmit data from the SpaceBEE satellites for the first time. However, Swarm does not want to test its innovative Internet of Things communications technology, which the company believes could be orders of magnitude cheaper than existing satellite links. Instead, the transmissions would comprise only “telemetry packets containing essential orbital data. This data includes rotational and magnetometer data, as well as comprehensive GPS tracking information, such as latitude/longitude, altitude, course, speed, and satellite count.”

That data would then be made available to the FCC, and shared with other agencies and satellite operators via Swarm’s website (although this link is currently unavailable).

The FCC originally denied Swarm’s application for the four CubeSats because it believed that, at just 10 centimeters (cm) x 10 cm x 2.8 cm, they were too small to be tracked reliably on orbit. Uncertainty about their positions would thus expose other satellites and potentially even crewed spacecraft to unacceptable collision risks.

Swarm thought that it had mitigated those risks by including a GPS unit in each satellite to report its position, and integrating passive reflectors to boost the tiny satellites’ visibility to ground-based radar stations. The FCC disagreed and told Swarm not to launch, but the company did so anyway, aboard an Indian commercial rocket.

When the FCC learned of the unlicensed launch, it set aside Swarm’s authorization for a subsequent launch of larger satellites, delayed permission for a market trial of the Internet of Things system, and started an investigation into the company.

Curt Blake, president of Spaceflight Industries, the company that manifested the SpaceBEEs on the Indian rocket, participated in that investigation. “We went before the FCC and told them what had happened,” he told the NewSpace 2018 conference in Seattle in June. “It’s fair to say [Swarm] misrepresented to us what their status was with the government in terms of [their] regulatory status.” Blake also said the FCC was working on a new regulatory policy, and that “without question” Spaceflight would not put an unlicensed satellite on a launch vehicle again.

Six months from the Swarm launch, the only public output from the FCC investigation has been an advisory notice warning satellite operators that ignoring its rules “can and will result in enforcement action.” That typically involves a large fine.

Meanwhile, Swarm has been feeling increasing pressure. In early June, it filed another application for permission to launch three experimental satellites, writing that it “urgently needs to demonstrate the viability of its proposed satellite-based communications network to technical and business partners, potential investors, and potential customers.”

Then, less than two weeks ago, lawyers for Swarm requested the voluntary dismissal of two pending and set-aside applications at the FCC. This was necessary, they wrote, “given the need for Swarm to realign experiments and/or market trials with currently available launch vehicles.” Basically, Swarm had missed a ride to orbit while the FCC was deliberating, and is now focusing its efforts on a SpaceX rocket due to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in September or October.

Neither Swarm nor the FCC immediately responded to requests for comment on the latest filing, but there are two likely explanations for it. One is that the FCC is requiring the company to make the SpaceBEEs’ orbital data widely available as part of an as yet unannounced enforcement action. The second is that Swarm is proactively offering that data in an effort to placate the FCC, and possibly accelerate its decision-making regarding the upcoming mission.

The filing says that the sole purpose of the application is to collect orbital and tracking data. This would involve a handful of 2-second transmissions from each satellite each day, as they pass over ground stations in Silicon Valley and the state of Georgia. All the data will then be uploaded, within half a second, to a portal on Swarm’s website, where it could be used by federal agencies, satellite tracking companies and other operators.

Although Swarm is proposing this somewhat convoluted process, it still believes that its SpaceBEEs are no more dangerous than any other CubeSat on orbit. In the new filing, it notes: “All four SPACEBEE satellite [sic] have been trackable by the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) by normal means. No gaps in tracking have occurred, and the satellites are currently being tracked, and the... orbital data is being posted publicly to the SSN database.”

The four SpaceBEEs do all have live entries in the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command catalog.

If the new data were essential for orbital safety, Swarm would have to file yet another application in six months anyway. The latest application covers operations from 15 July until the end of 2018. The four pesky SpaceBEEs are expected to remain on orbit until at least 2022.

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