With regulatory legwork complete, Swarm shifts focus to tackling launch delays

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MT LAUREL, New Jersey — Swarm says it has obtained the last regulatory approvals it needed to start an internet-of-things service with its tiny Spacebee satellites, closing a high-profile chapter in the company’s development. 

Since receiving the necessary FCC approvals last month, Swarm is turning its attention to a challenge smallsat startups are more acquainted with — launch delays

Swarm had hoped the majority of its planned 150-satellite constellation would be in low Earth orbit by the middle of this year. Instead the company has nine satellites in orbit, none of which are authorized to do more than non-revenue-generating demonstration activities. 

In an interview, Swarm chief executive Sara Spangelo said a trifecta of setbacks prevented the company from getting its constellation in orbit in the timeframe envisioned. 

Swarm didn’t receive an FCC license to deploy and operate a 150-satellite constellation until October 2019, and couldn’t launch commercial satellites before then, Spangelo said. Then rockets the company had booked satellites on — Rocket Lab’s Electron, Arianespace’s Vega and India’s PSLV — all experienced delays of their own. Finally, the coronavirus outbreak reached pandemic levels in March, pausing launch campaigns for all three vehicles. 

Swarm has 12 Spacebee satellites at the Guiana Space Center in South America awaiting a June launch aboard Arianespace’s Vega rocket, Spangelo said. That will kick off a string of launches Swarm hopes will complete its constellation in 2021, she said. 

“We’ll be launching about 12 to 24 satellites a month,” Spangelo said. 

Spangelo said Swarm is evaluating other launch providers, and is impartial to dedicated smallsat launches or sharing rockets with other smallsat operators through rideshares. 

“We don’t have a favorite,” she said. “We just try to get on the earliest launches that are going to the orbits we need.”

Swarm signed an agreement announced April 22 to launch 12 satellites on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in December with a Vigoride in-space shuttle from Momentus to drop them off in specific orbital planes. Swarm’s satellites, each about the size of a hockey puck, lack onboard propulsion. 

Spangelo said Swarm received FCC certification in late April to sell communications services from the company’s satellites, positioning Swarm to start generating revenue from the satellites launching on Vega. The company’s first customers will use Swarm connectivity for agricultural purposes like monitoring soil moisture, logistics activities including tracking containers, and in maritime for linking fishing and environmental buoys, she said. 

Spangelo said Swarm is building out a network of around 30 ground stations by the end of this year that will enable the company to communicate with its satellites. Since Swarm satellites use VHF frequencies to send kilobytes of data, the company concluded it was cheaper to build its own network than to outsource to ground-as-a-service companies that can handle megabits or gigabits of data, she said. 

Because of the coronavirus, Swarm is shipping some ground stations and having local partners install them rather than flying out its own technicians, Spangelo said. Completing each ground station costs a few thousand dollars, she said, including travel when necessary. 

Spangelo said Swarm has raised more than $30 million since forming in 2016. She declined to state the specific amount.