4 illegal satellites launched

Wednesday, 14 Mar, 2018

California startup Swarm Technologies, which is designing the "world's smallest two-way communication satellites", has found itself in hot water with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over an unsanctioned launch. Swarm Technology of Mountain View, Calif., has been developing its ultra-small satellites, called SpaceBEEs, created to provide a network for the Internet of Things (IoT) devices in our homes and cars.

The Swarm Technologies' satellites were reportedly launched on a rocket operated by the Indian space agency ISRO on January 12. Without the ability to track the satellites, they could hit other spacecraft in orbit and cause significant damage, the agency said.

Four devices-SpaceBee-1, 2, 3, and 4-were reportedly bundled in with a large mapping satellite onboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) rocket.

Swarm's next launch, planned for April, is now in jeopardy.

IEEE and TechCrunch have so far been unsuccessful in repeated attempts to reach Swarm for comment.

Swarm Technologies attempted to mitigate the small size of their first satellites by equipping them with Global Positioning System receivers and passive radar reflectors, but the FCC still rejected the application on the grounds that, in the event of a software failure, the satellites would become a piece of noncommunicative debris that could seriously damage other spacecraft. The FCC then revoked Swarm's approval for a subsequent mission that would have taken place in April, citing an "apparent unauthorized launch and operation" of the four satellites.

The agency denied the application for launching the satellites because of safety concerns, the FCC said in its letter.

"The fact that a company can do something like this, and number one, the government was not able to stop them, and number two, other governments were willing-the Indian government was willing to launch it-that says something about the lack of good, enforceable regulations, laws and treaty arrangements", says Todd Harrison, a space technology expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Their tiny size makes them hard to track, which could result in collisions with existing spacecraft.

As for Swarm Technologies, because there is no precedent for this situation, the repercussions if the FCC finds a breach of its rules are now unknown - but the investigation is underway.