The Buzz Generated from Swarm Technologies

Kristina Schiavone, GSLC Research Council Member — October 22, 2019

Sara Spangelo started Swarm Industries in 2016 with the idea of creating “a loose exoskeleton around the planet, allowing internet-connected devices, from tiny sensors to phones, to communicate with one another back on the ground.” The “loose exoskeleton” of satellites was dubbed the name SpaceBees. Spangelo, a former Google and NASA engineer sought permission to launch four SpaceBees from the FCC but was subsequently denied a license. Since the Swarm satellites are smaller than a cubesat, regulators feared they would be difficult to track in orbit. Essentially, the proposed idea did not agree with the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines and therefore posed a significant threat to the ISS and current satellites.

FCC licensure and Commercial Launches From ISRO

U.S. companies are required to acquire an FCC license prior to launching a satellite into orbit. However, the FCC was not the only obstacle in the way of the SpaceBees initial launch. India has yet to sign the U.S. government agreement, CSLA – the purpose of which is to maintain the U.S. commercial launch prices as a minimum standard for non-U.S. government launch providers. Without this agreement in place, the U.S. feared that the Indian government threatens to “distort the conditions of competition” concerning small satellite launches. In response, the U.S. Trade Representative policy banned the commercial use of Indian rockets.  

Lack of Enforcement of the Commercial Ban

In 2016, COMSTAC released a statement as follows: “allowing India’s state-owned and controlled launch providers to compete with U.S. companies, runs counter to many national policies and undermines the work that has been done by government and industry to ensure the health of the U.S. space launch industrial base.” This inevitably illustrates the loosely held ban on commercial space launches via ISRO. The inconsistency in the policy inevitably invites U.S. commercial entities to take advantage of launch services from ISRO rockets.

To launch the SpaceBees, Spangelo brokered with Spaceflight Industries – a satellite rideshare company that aids smaller satellite companies in locating available spots on launches that already contain a large payload. Spaceflight Industries brokered a secondary spaceflight opportunity with ISRO to launch the four SpaceBees.

When Reality Sets In

Ultimately, the FCC fined Swarm Technologies US$900,000 for the illegal launch, but at the same time, allowed for the possibility of future launches. The next-generation SpaceBees, contrary to the FCC’s initial fears, are trackable while in orbit, due to their radar reflectors. Currently Swarm has an experimental license from the FCC and has nine SpaceBees in orbit.

Final Thoughts

Without due regard for the interests of other countries and the respect for domestic regulations, the smaller satellite commercial startups pose significant threats to the outer space environment. It is only a matter of time before a novel idea may have everlasting effects. In sum, outer space policies and regulations are only as strong as their enforcement and the compliance of private operators.

Relevant Sources: (page 237) (“The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) has been able to sell a dedicated commercial launch of the Small Satellite Launch Vehicle (SSLV) to an American company months before the rocket is any shape to lift off. . .”)

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