On 12 January, the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) blasted off from the eastern coast of India carrying a record 31 satellites onboard. The payload included satellites ranging from a primary Indian mapping satellite and dozens of other CubeSats that includes British’s Carbonite that will capture HD video of planet’s surface, Canada’s Telesat which is a satellite-based broadband service, and a bunch of other CubeSats delivered by different countries. Although this is normal, what’s not normal is that the rocket had four CubeSats from a Silicon Valley-based company which denied launch by FCC last year.
According to the reports, SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4 were the four CubeSats satellites that were launched by Indian Space Agency ISRO aboard a PSLV on January 12. Although no operator name was mentioned on ISRO’s launch manifest, it did mention that these four satellites are two-way satellite communications and data relay. A popular news website revealed that SpaceBees satellites were indeed the first spacecraft launched by the Silicon Valley-based Swarm Technologies, a startup founded by two engineers from Apple and Google in 2016. The company is building satellites for the Internet of Things communications between sender and receivers.
The startup envisions to bring down the cost of satellite communications to the magnitude lower than the cost of existing options. The technology developed by Swarm Technologies would provide tracking of cars, ships, enable new agricultural technologies and much more for which, it demonstrated its first prototype named SpaceBees which is loaded with its excellent algorithms and state-of-the-art hardware that would exchange data between the satellite and the ground stations for up to eight years in a row. What’s bothering is that the startup was denied launch by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) a week earlier than its launch. FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites in the space and also, its objective is to minimize the change of accidents by properly tracking each and every satellite in the space.
FCC denied the permission to launch SpaceBees out of the feat that the four satellites would increase the chances of the risk of collision with other satellites. The recent launch by Swarm Technologies is touted as the first-ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites in the world. FCC has been assessing the impact of the spacecraft which are now orbiting the Earth. Swarm would have to convince FCC to be a commission licensee failing which, the startup will not be allowed to create the network of CubeSats across the globe.
Talking about the company, Swarm Technologies is based in Menlo Park, California. It was founded in 2016 by two young aerospace engineers. Sara Spangelo who is the CEO of the company is a Canadian who worked at the NASA’s JPL before moving into Google in 2016. Benjamin Longmier who is the CFO of Swarm Technology sold his near-space balloon company Aether Industries to Apple in 2015. Actually, he is a well-known candidate for his company Apple Fusion which develops electric propulsion systems for satellites.
The SpaceBees satellites would provide support to companies that develop Internet of Things (IoT) since it will require connectivity for billions of sensors and trackers that would facilitate the exchange of data over the Internet. The company would provide gateways that will collect data using a number of methods and then, beam it to the SpaceBee satellites using VHF radio which will be exchanged to the nearest ground station and finally to the end user. SpaceBee will be a two-way communication satellite where data across both the sides will be encrypted while accepting uplinks or downlinks every minute or so.
Sara Spangelo who graduated from the University of Michigan submitted several research papers while she was still studying. Her paper described the algorithms and models that would maximize the data flow over the network. FCC denied the permission for the launch citing its extremely small size of 0.25U CubeSats which is less than the minimum size that can be tracked in the space. One CubeSats is about 10x10x2.8 cm that makes it 1U. Swarm Technologies proclaim to developed world’s smallest two-way communications satellites which are manifested on its website.