The Federal Communications Commission is saying that Swarm Technologies has launched four tiny internet satellites into space back in January. Swarm is a communication startup run by some former Silicon Valley veterans. This is a huge deal because the FCC didn’t green light the project. In fact, they are saying the experimental satellites are dangerous. If confirmed, it would mark the first known time in history that unauthorized satellites have been placed in space.
Where this gets interesting is in the fact that they were launched alongside some state-owned satellites. More specifically, Indian Space Agency (ISRO) launched their 100th satellite, along with 30 others. But, apparently, there were four satellites that shouldn’t have been put into the cargo hold of the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle. Drama, right? Prior to the launch, ISRO described the four satellites as American owned “two-way satellite communications and data relay” devices, but with no operator identified.
It was discovered that the “Spacebees” actually belong to Swarm Technologies – a company that was founded two years ago by a Canadian aerospace engineer and a developer who sold his previous company to Apple. Swarm is currently working on a system that will enable a space-based Internet of Things communication network. With what goal? To enable the hook up of ships, cars, trucks, agricultural equipment and anything else that has an IP address. The four SpaceBees currently in orbit represent the first of what the company hopes will be a larger constellation of tiny satellites, which together will be capable of delivering low-cost internet to virtually any part of the globe.
It gets worse. Swarm had previously applied for an experimental satellite application, but they were turned down on the grounds of safety. The FCC feared that the SpaceBees would pose an “unacceptable collision risk for other spacecrafts”. Well, I guess it’s too late. What Swarm has done is actually quite upsetting. That unscrupulous startups are tossing unsanctioned—and potentially dangerous—objects into space is so not cool. And it appears the FCC agrees. Am I actually agreeing with the FCC for once? Earlier this week, the communications commission withdrew its approval for a follow-up mission that was supposed to go up in April with an additional four satellites. Another application involving two undisclosed Fortune 100 companies is now also in doubt. Furthermore, the FCC is now investigating the incident, and Swarm could very well lose its launch privileges.
I think the bigger issue is not about the possibility of collision (although, that’s a concern). In my opinion, the bigger concern is how far back this is going to set private organizations in terms of being able to launch satellites. As a public servant myself, I can see how this is going to create a lot of headaches and paperwork for the FCC. I’m not saying it’s always a bad thing, but what it does is stops progress because governments can’t approve any further projects until they get this one sorted out. There’s a lot of risk management that is woven into government processes. And while I rarely take the side of the FCC, I think they’re on the right side of this one.