Swarm of tiny satellites could relay messages by year’s end
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine. Information on Ford Smart Mobility’s work with Swarm was corrected on Oct. 2.
Since 2017, Swarm Technologies has built, launched and operated nine miniature satellites, raised more than $28 million for a 150-spacecraft constellation and forged agreements with some 200 potential customers.
The company’s most impressive accomplishment, though, isn’t on that list. Swarm has repaired its relationship with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to the point where the Silicon Valley startup is closing in on a license to offer communications services in the United States.
Swarm’s relationship with the FCC got off to a rocky start in early 2018 when the firm launched four tiny SpaceBee satellites without FCC approval and was slapped with a $900,000 fine. Swarm executives aren’t commenting on how that happened but the company has hired satellite regulatory expert Kalpak Gude and worked to ensure ground-based radars can easily spot its SpaceBees. The FCC cited visibility concerns when it denied a launch license in 2018 for Swarm’s 10 centimeters by 10 centimeters by 2.5 centimeter SpaceBees.
Now, Swarm co-founders, CEO Sara Spangelo and Chief Technology Officer Ben Longmier, are optimistic the FCC will grant the company a license this fall or winter under Part 25 of the Code of Federal Regulations Title 47, the rules governing nongeosynchronous satellites, to offer service for 1 million devices “throughout the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, all U.S. territories and possessions, and all U.S. territorial waters,” according to the firm’s FCC license application filed March 1.
As soon as Swarm receives authorizations to offer service in the United States, including separate approvals for its space segment, customer communications devices and ground stations, it will begin commercial operations, Spangelo said. “We hope that is by the end of the year,” she added.
Swarm is working to extend service worldwide, which requires country-by-country approval. With 150 satellites, Swarm could support as many as 10 million devices, Spangelo said. In addition to the U.S. market, “we expect to start commercial operations in two other countries by the end of the year,” Spangelo said.
Dozens of companies have announced plans to offer global satellite communications services, citing the promise of connecting devices and people beyond the reach of cellphone networks.
Swarm aims to stand out in the market because its prices will be so low, Spangelo said, adding monthly service to send messages from a single device will cost “a few dollars.”
Keeping costs low is a key element of Swarm’s strategy. The company is vertically integrated, building and testing satellites in-house and operating its own ground stations. Spangelo and Longmier, who earned doctorates in aerospace engineering and engineering physics, respectively, designed the smallest and simplest spacecraft possible to keep launch costs low. They dispensed with many standard cubesat components including reaction wheels, star trackers and magnetometers. In orbit, SpaceBees orient themselves with the help of drag and gravity.
To offer global coverage with only 150 satellites, compared with thousands in some of the proposed broadband constellations, each SpaceBee covers a wide area. To obtain that coverage with miniature satellites means data rates will be low. Swarm plans to offer customers data rates of one kilobit per second initially, rising to 2.7 kilobits per second. “That’s enough to move a whole bunch of text messages,” Spangelo said.
To access the network, Swarm customers will purchase radio-frequency modems about half the size of a smartphone to integrate in their own devices or they can buy Swarm’s waterproof Tracker with a built-in modem, antenna and USB port. Spangelo and Longmier also designed Trackers for simplicity. They are designed around a single printed circuit board produced on a commercial pick-and-place machine.
Swarm’s promise of low-cost machine-to-machine communications has attracted more than 200 potential customers, ranging from a Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary to Aclima, a San Francisco startup that produces “hyper-local” air-quality data. Autonomic, a Ford Smart Mobility subsidiary that creates software for connected cars, is “looking to integrate” Swarm’s network with its Transportation Mobility Cloud to ensure drivers will have access to cloud-based services “from just about anywhere in the world,” Marcy Klevorn, Ford Smart Mobility president wrote in a January Medium post.
Many of Swarm’s potential customers are interested in sending data related to agriculture, maritime, logistics and energy through the network, Spangelo said. Meanwhile, government interest is growing with multiple agencies conducting demonstrations, Longmier said.
For example, Swarm is preparing to send a ground station and handheld Trackers to Antarctica with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Small Business Innovative Research program.
Spangelo and Longmier declined to discuss potential defense and intelligence applications for the satellite network.