swarming sats

by Marissa Herron

Image source: Sara Spangelo[1]

A few years ago, Swarm Technologies became infamously known for having launched four picosats[2] without an FCC license[3]. The initial response to the event was a combination of surprise and concern for the responsible behavior of commercial satellite operators. A brief look at this event will reveal new perspectives and opportunities for improvement.

In short, the following events occurred:

  1. Swarm Technologies applied for an FCC license in April 2017[4]
  2. In December 2017, the FCC dismissed the license for the four picosats. The dismissal was due to the size of the satellites being below the threshold of the SSN. See the image below for the contents of the FCC letter[5].
  3. Swarm Technologies launched the picosats from India in January 2018[6]

U.S. commercial satellites receive licenses from the FAA, FCC, and NOAA[7]. These licenses indicate compliance with the regulations and the respective agency approvals for operation.  The license requirements exist for U.S. satellite owner/operators. Failure to comply with the regulations may result in fines that can include the denial of future license applications[8]

Swarm Technologies was not pursuing a one-time approval, but instead had plans (and applications filed) to launch future satellites. They were incentivized to comply with the regulatory process and intended to continue a relationship with the regulators. Further, the company chose to register as a U.S. entity rather than fly a different flag and circumvent the U.S. regulatory process.

Clearly the company intended to comply with the regulatory process, so what happened? A closer look at the technical complexities involved (for both regulators and applicants) reveals a challenging process that can be overwhelming for startup companies[9].

Image source: April 2017 FCC application[10]

Swarm Technologies’ BEE[11] satellites were an unusual situation for the FCC to address and one which regulators have struggled with in the past[12]. These tiny satellites are only 0.182 kg each with a 0.25U form-factor[13] (11x11x28 cm[14]) making them difficult to track. Tracking a satellite in orbit is used to mitigate close approaches with other satellites and/or debris. If a satellite is not well tracked, then the lack of situational awareness can challenge the ability to mitigate on orbit risks and prevent a collision. Thus, the ability to track a satellite remains a crucial requirement for satellites.

Knowing the picosats would be a challenge to track, Swarm Technologies placed experimental technology on the satellites with the intent to improve the ability to track the satellites. They employed passive Ku-band radar retroreflectors to increase the radar cross section (RCS) of the satellites. In other words, the reflectors improved the visibility of the satellites to Ku-band tracking capabilities, specifically the Haystack radar[15]

Unfortunately, this experimental technology meant the improved tracking capability was unproven and thereby uncertain. Thus, the FCC was unwilling to commit to the experimental technology by granting a license. In addition to the passive reflector technology, the BEE’s also carried onboard GPS capabilities. The company stated in its ODAR the intent to share their telemetry with “any other entity that wishes to receive the live telemetry.” GPS technology is well proven and reliable, however, the FCC remained concerned with relying solely on GPS and having no fault tolerance should the GPS fail to operate.

The 10 cm guideline, cited by the FCC, is based on the Space Surveillance Network (SSN) advertised observation capabilities. These capabilities can vary depending upon the technical characteristics of the situation (sensor type, viewing angle, number of observations, RCS, etc.)[16]. The FCC was accustomed to the traditional approach of assessing viewing ability based solely on the existence of the SSN. 

Image source: LeoLabs YouTube video[17]

As it turned out, LeoLabs and the SSN were both able to track and identify the satellites without issue[18]. LeoLabs is a company that builds and operates its own radar sensors. Commercial tracking capabilities are relatively recent developments. The government is still learning when and how to make use of these capabilities. These companies are demonstrating their capabilities and already contributing to the overall challenge of tracking objects in space. LeoLabs has since begun offering a subscription based service for small satellites[19]. Swarm Technologies is a customer of the new LeoLabs service. As the government becomes more familiar with commercial tracking services, these new capabilities present an opportunity to help satellite applicants meet license requirements.

This challenging situation brought awareness that regulations can be complex and difficult to navigate. Small companies are particularly at a disadvantage given their limited resources. The regulators and the companies need to work together to enable a path towards deployment. Experimental technology can be particularly challenging and may require creative solutions, especially when paving a new path forward. Important to remember is that companies can pursue licenses and launch approvals outside the U.S. Thus, the regulators are in the challenging position of maintaining a balance between burdensome regulation and no regulation at all. 

In just a few years, Swarm Technologies has demonstrated new technology enabling the tracking of picosats and launched a growing constellation of satellites. The company’s low cost technology enables a unique business approach that provides “low-bandwidth connectivity to low-powered devices around the world.[20]” This innovative technology is benefiting farmers[21], the maritime industry[22], wildfire monitoring[23], and water monitoring in East Africa villages[24].

Swarm Technologies’ success caught the attention of SpaceX. Recent articles and an FCC application for transfer of ownership[25] indicate that Swarm Technologies is now a “direct, wholly-owned subsidiary of SpaceX.[26]

[1] https://medium.com/swarm-technologies/introducing-swarm-549b804f1fa1

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CubeSat

[3] https://www.thespacereview.com/article/3465/1

[4] https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=191177&x=.

[5] https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=203152

[6] https://spectrum.ieee.org/fcc-accuses-stealthy-startup-of-launching-rogue-satellites

[7] There are some misconceptions that the FCC licenses are specific to launch. Simply put, the FAA oversees launch and entry, NOAA oversees cameras, and the FCC oversees communications. No specific entity has been explicitly authorized to oversee regulations pertaining to orbital debris and satellite tracking, but the FCC does include on orbit tracking requirements in their license applications.

[8] Shortly after the unauthorized launch, the FCC placed another Swarm Technologies license application on hold. https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=205987&x=. Swarm Technologies received a fine, agreed to increased FCC oversight, and pre-launch notices. The company was allowed to reactivate their satellites in August 2018. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-satellite-fine/fcc-fines-swarm-900000-for-unauthorized-satellite-launch-idUSKCN1OJ2WT

[9] https://spacenews.com/swarm-ceo-talks-past-mistakes-future-goals/

[10] https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=191177&x=.

[11] Basic Electronic Elements or “BEEs”, https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=191177&x=.

[12] “An investigation by IEEE Spectrum has revealed that the FCC licensed multiple satellites smaller than 10 cm over the past five years, including some as small as 3.5 by 3.5 by 0.2 cm. But the commission has also changed its mind from one application to the next, refusing launch permission for satellites that were virtually identical to ones previously authorized. This uncertainty has led to at least one satellite maker exporting his technology rather than risk being denied a license in the U.S.”, https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-fccs-big-problem-with-small-satellites

[13] “CubeSats are built to standard dimensions (Units or “U”) of 10 cm x 10 cm x 10 cm. They can be 1U, 2U, 3U, or 6U in size, and typically weigh less than 1.33 kg (3 lbs) per U.” https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/cubesats/overview, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CubeSat

[14] https://swarm.space/our-technology/

[15] SWARM Orbital Debris Assessment Report, see Section 9 https://apps.fcc.gov/els/GetAtt.html?id=193219&x=.

[16] The 10 cm guideline was appropriate at the time of the license application. The Space Fence offers improved tracking capabilities: https://www.lockheedmartin.com/en-us/products/space-fence.html

[17] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VSSRC175sz8, August 2, 2018

[18] https://platform.leolabs.space/catalog#spacebeehttps://platform.leolabs.space/constellations/LC1, https://medium.com/swarm-technologies/introducing-swarm-549b804f1fa1

[19] https://spacenews.com/leotrack-rollout/

[20] https://techcrunch.com/2021/06/23/how-one-founder-realized-satellite-internet-didnt-have-to-be-fast-or-expensive-to-be-useful/

[21] https://www.farmprogress.com/crops/sandwich-sized-satellites-offer-data-connectivity

[22] https://www.maritime-executive.com/editorials/driving-better-shipping-through-improvements-in-data-and-connectivity

[23] https://swarm.space/preventing-wildfires-through-ultra-early-detection/

[24] https://swarm.space/remotely-monitoring-and-controlling-water-purification-and-power-generation-in-east-africa/

[25] https://fcc.report/IBFS/SAT-T-C-20210806-00096

[26] https://www.satellitetoday.com/business/2021/08/09/spacex-buys-out-satellite-iot-startup-swarm-technologies/

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