All posts in “Satellites”

Swarm Technologies raises $25M to deploy its own 150-satellite constellation

Swarm Technologies is one of several companies looking to populate low Earth orbit with communications satellites, setting itself apart with the sheer smallness of its devices — and of course with the notoriety of having defied the FCC and earned a fine. But investors are bullish, and the company has just raised a $25 million round A to put 150 of its tiny SpaceBEEs in orbit.

There are many communications markets to be served from space: Starlink wants to do mobile broadband; Ubiquitilink wants to eliminate “no signal”; and Swarm is taking aim at embedded devices, the so-called internet of things.

IoT devices don’t need high speeds or low latency; the data they produce can usually wait a few minutes, or even days. While they very well could be registered on your ordinary wi-fi network or even connect by a cellular connection, it’s easy to see that they would benefit from a separate form of connectivity more suited to their needs.

This is especially true when you consider how areas like farms and wildernesses are being outfitted with sensors to monitor soil, warn of poachers or lost hikers, and otherwise provide some basic data on the huge swathes of land that are more or less off the grid.

Swarm has developed something entirely new: a low-bandwidth, latency-tolerant network that is extremely inexpensive, low-power and very easy to integrate for things that need to be connected anywhere in the world,” said Sky Dayton, EarthLink founder and leading participant in the round alongside Craft Ventures, Social Capital. 4DX Ventures, and NJF Capital.

The focus at Swarm now is on speed and cost reduction. Especially in space, there’s a strong argument to get something, anything in place so you can demonstrate the utility of your service, however limited, while others are still at the drawing board.

That’s what the $25 million will be dedicated to — expansion and in particular the deployment of a 150-satellite constellation over the next 18 months.

Of course the success of the company’s ambitions here depend much upon finalization, regulatory approval, manufacturing, and launch schedules. But Swarm’s satellites really are small — so small that the FCC was leery about allowing them to be launched — so dozens may well be launched at a time.

The company has already launched and tested a few of its satellites, but I’ve asked when they’ll have a finalized design and can begin manufacturing and launching them. I’ll update this article if I hear back.

To rebuild satellite communications, Ubiquitilink starts at ground level

Communications satellites are multiplying year by year as more companies vie to create an orbital network that brings high-speed internet to the globe. Ubiquitilink, a new company headed by Nanoracks co-founder Charles Miller, is taking a different tack: reinventing the Earthbound side of the technology stack.

Miller’s intuition, backed by approval and funding from a number of investors and communications giants, is that people are competing to solve the wrong problem in the comsat world. Driving down the cost of satellites isn’t going to create the revolution they hope. Instead, he thinks the way forward lies in completely rebuilding the “user terminal,” usually a ground station or large antenna.

“If you’re focused on bridging the digital divide, say you have to build a thousand satellites and a hundred million user terminals,” he said, “which should you optimize for cost?”

Of course dropping the price of satellites has plenty of benefits on its own, but he does have a point. What happens when a satellite network is in place to cover most of the planet but the only devices that can access it cost thousands of dollars or have to be in proximity to some subsidized high-tech hub?

There are billions of phones on the planet, he points out, yet only 10 percent of the world has anything like a mobile connection. Serving the hundreds of millions who at any given moment have no signal, he suggests, is a no-brainer. And you’re not going to do it by adding more towers; if that was a valid business proposition, telecoms would have done it years ago.

Instead, Miller’s plan is to outfit phones with a new hardware-software stack that will offer a baseline level of communication whenever a phone would otherwise lapse into “no service.” And he claims it’ll be possible for less than $5 per person.

He was coy about the exact nature of this tech, but I didn’t get the sense that it’s vaporware or anything like that. Miller and his team are seasoned space and telecoms people, and of course you don’t generally launch a satellite to test vaporware.

But Ubiquitilink does have a bird in the air, with testing of their tech set to start next month and two more launches planned. The stack already been proven on the ground, Miller said, and has garnered serious interest.

“We’ve been in stealth for several years and have signed up 22 partners — 20 are multi-billion dollar companies,” he said, adding that the latter are mainly communications companies, though he declined to name them. The company has also gotten regulatory clearance to test in five countries, including the US.

Miller self-funded the company at the outset, but soon raised a pre-seed round led by Blazar Ventures (and indirectly, telecoms infrastructure standby Neustar). Unshackled led the seed round, along with RRE Ventures, Rise of the Rest, and One Way Ventures. All told the company is working with a total $6.5 million, which it will use to finance its launches and tests; once they’ve taken place it will be safer to dispel a bit of the mystery around the tech.

“UbiquitiLink represents one of the largest opportunities in telecommunications,” Unshackled founding partner Manan Mehta said, calling the company’s team “maniacally focused.”

I’m more than a little interested to find out more about this stealth attempt, three years in the making so far, to rebuild satellite communications from the ground up. Some skepticism is warranted, but the pedigree here is difficult to doubt; we’ll know more once orbital testing commences in the next few months.

FCC fines Swarm Technologies $900K over unauthorized satellite launch

Back in March came the surprising news that a satellite communications company still more or less in stealth mode had launched several tiny craft into orbit — against the explicit instructions of the FCC. The company, Swarm Technologies, now faces a $900,000 penalty from the agency as well as extra oversight of its continuing operations.

Swarm’s SpaceBEEs are the beginning of a planned constellation of small satellites with which the company intends to provide low-cost global connectivity.

Unfortunately, the units are so small — about a quarter the size of a standard cubesat, which is already quite tiny — that the FCC felt they would be too difficult to track, and did not approve the launch.

SpaceBEEs are small, as you can see. Credit: Swarm Technologies

Swarm, perhaps thinking it better to ask forgiveness than file the paperwork for permission, launched anyway in January aboard India’s PSLV-C40, which carried more than a dozen other passengers to space as well. (I asked Swarm and the launch provider, Spaceflight, at the time for comment but never heard back.)

The FCC obviously didn’t like this, and began an investigation shortly afterwards. According to an FCC press release:

The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Not good! As penance, Swarm Technologies will have to pay the aforementioned $900,000, and now has to submit pre-launch reports to the FCC within 5 days of signing an agreement to launch, and at least 45 days before takeoff.

The company hasn’t been sitting on its hands this whole time. The unauthorized launch was a mistake to be sure, but it has continued its pursuit of a global constellation and launched three more SpaceBEEs into orbit just a few weeks ago aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9.

Swarm has worked to put the concerns about tracking to bed; in fact, the company claims its devices are more trackable than ordinary cubesats, with a larger radar cross section and extra reflectivity thanks to a Van Atta array (ask them). SpaceBEE-1 is about to pass over Italy as I write this — you can check its location live here.

FCC approval of Europe’s Galileo satellite signals may give your phone’s GPS a boost

The FCC’s space-focused meeting today had actions taken on SpaceX satellites and orbital debris reduction, but the decision most likely to affect users has to do with Galileo . No, not the astronomer — the global positioning satellite constellation put in place by the E.U. over the last few years. It’s now legal for U.S. phones to use, and a simple software update could soon give your GPS signal a major bump.

Galileo is one of several successors to the Global Positioning System that’s been in use since the ’90s. But because it is U.S.-managed and was for a long time artificially limited in accuracy to everyone but U.S. military, it should come as no surprise that European, Russian, and Chinese authorities would want their own solutions. Russia’s GLONASS is operational and China is hard at work getting its BeiDou system online.

The E.U.’s answer to GPS was Galileo, and the 26 (out of 30 planned) satellites making up the constellation offer improved accuracy and other services, such as altitude positioning. Test satellites went up as early as 2005, but it wasn’t until 2016 that it began actually offering location services.

A Galileo satellite launch earlier this year.

Devices already existed that would take advantage of Galileo signals — all the way back to the iPhone 6S, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and many others from that era forward. It just depends on the wireless chip inside the phone or navigation unit, and it’s pretty much standard now. (There’s a partial list of smartphones supporting Galileo here.)

When a company sells a new phone, it’s much easier to just make a couple million of the same thing rather than make tiny changes like using a wireless chipset in U.S. models that doesn’t support Galileo. The trade-off in savings versus complexity of manufacturing and distribution just isn’t worthwhile.

The thing is, American phones couldn’t use Galileo because the FCC has regulations against having ground stations being in contact with foreign satellites. Which is exactly what using Galileo positioning is, though of course it’s nothing sinister.

If you’re in the U.S., then, your phone likely has the capability to use Galileo but it has been disabled in software. The FCC decision today lets device makers change that, and the result could be much-improved location services. (One band not very compatible with existing U.S. navigation services has been held back, but two of the three are now available.)

Interestingly enough, however, your phone may already be using Galileo without your or the FCC’s knowledge. Because the capability is behind a software lock, it’s possible that a user could install an app or service bringing it into use. Perhaps you travel to Europe a lot and use a French app store and navigation app designed to work with Galileo and it unlocked the bands. There’d be nothing wrong with that.

Or perhaps you installed a custom ROM that included the ability to check the Galileo signal. That’s technically illegal, but the thing is there’s basically no way for anyone to tell! The way these systems work, all you’d be doing is receiving a signal illegally that your phone already supports and that’s already hitting its antennas every second — so who’s going to report you?

It’s unlikely that phone makers have secretly enabled the Galileo frequencies on U.S. models, but as Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out in a statement accompanying the FCC action, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening:

If you read the record in this proceeding and others like it, it becomes clear that many devices in the United States are already operating with foreign signals. But nowhere in our record is there a good picture of how many devices in this country are interacting with these foreign satellite systems, what it means for compliance with our rules, and what it means for the security of our systems. We should change that. Technology has gotten ahead of our approval policies and it’s time for a true-up.

She isn’t suggesting a crackdown — this is about regulation lagging behind consumer tech. Still, it is a little worrying that the FCC basically has no idea, and no way to find out, how many devices are illicitly tuning in to Galileo signals.

Expect an update to roll out to your phone sometime soon — Galileo signals will be of serious benefit to any location-based app, and to public services like 911, which are now officially allowed to use the more accurate service to determine location.

SpaceX’s Starlink aims to put over a thousand of its communications satellites in super-low orbit

SpaceX’s planned communication satellite constellation, known as Starlink, will now be targeting a much lower orbit than originally planned, at least for over a thousand of the satellites, the company revealed in an FCC filing. The move should help mitigate orbital debris and provide better signal for the company’s terrestrial users as well.

Starlink plans to put 1,584 satellites — about a third of the 4,409 the company aims to launch — in an orbit just 550 kilometers about the surface of the Earth. For comparison, many communications satellites are in orbits over twice as high, and geosynchronous orbits are more than 20 times further out (around 36,000 miles).

At that distance orbits decay quickly, falling into the atmosphere and burning up after a handful of years. But SpaceX isn’t daunted; in fact, it writes in its application, lower orbits offer “several attractive features both during nominal operation and in the unlikely event something goes wrong.”

In the first place, orbital debris problems are naturally mitigated by the fact that anything in that low orbit will fall to Earth quickly instead of cluttering up the orbit. Second, it should shorten the amount of time it takes to send and receive a signal from the satellites — ping time could be as low as 15 milliseconds, the company estimated. 500 fewer kilometers means there will be less spreading for beam-based communications, as well.

The satellites will have to do more work to stay at their optimal altitude, since atmospheric drag will be higher, and each one will be able to see and serve less of the planet. But with thousands working together, that should be manageable.

The decision was informed by experimental data from the “Tintin” test satellites the company launched earlier this year. “SpaceX has learned to mitigate the disadvantages of operating at a lower altitude and still reap the well-know and significant benefits discussed above,” it wrote.

This change could lead to competitive advantages when satellite communications are more widely used, but it will also likely lead to a more intensive upkeep operation as Starlink birds keep dropping out of the air. Fortunately a third benefit of the lower orbit is that it’s easier to reach, though probably not so much easier that the company breaks even.

Starlink is aiming for the first real launches of its systems early next year, though that timeline may be a little too ambitious. But SpaceX can do ambitious.