Silicon Valley Company Launched Satellites Without FCC Approval

SpaceBEE satellite (Credit: ISRO)

A Silicon Valley startup named Swarm Technologies has been accused of launching four tiny satellites into space without FCC approval. The four SpaceBEE satellites, which are about one quarter the size of a 1U CubeSat, were launched aboard an Indian PSLV booster in January. The satellites are testing Internet of Things technologies.

The only problem is, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had dismissed Swarm’s application for its experimental satellites a month earlier, on safety grounds. The FCC is responsible for regulating commercial satellites, including minimizing the chance of accidents in space. It feared that the four SpaceBees now orbiting the Earth would pose an unacceptable collision risk for other spacecraft.

If confirmed, this would be the first ever unauthorized launch of commercial satellites.

On Wednesday, the FCC sent Swarm a letter revoking its authorization for a follow-up mission with four more satellites, due to launch next month. A pending application for a large market trial of Swarm’s system with two Fortune 100 companies could also be in jeopardy.

In fact, the FCC told the startup that the agency would assess “the impact of the applicant’s apparent unauthorized launch and operation of four satellites… on its qualifications to be a Commission licensee.” If Swarm cannot convince the FCC otherwise, the startup could lose permission to build its revolutionary network before the wider world even knows the company exists.

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  • OldCodger

    The interesting question is whether they will take decisive action. If not then they lose all credibility as regulators.

  • duheagle

    The really interesting question is whether the FCC has any statutory authority to deny a license based on potential space debris concerns. I don’t think they do. I doubt, in fact, that any U.S. government agency currently has such authority. This looks like a straightforward case of regulatory overreach to me. The FCC got entirely too used to being able to ignore its statutory limits during the Obama administration and seems to see no reason to quit inventing new authority for itself. This will be an interesting test for the Trump administration – especially the new National Space Council.

  • Michael Halpern

    if anyone has the authority I would assume it might be the FAA, not the FCC, FCC would only really have authority over the communications aspect, however the only time recently they have really overreached is in claiming their decision not to regulate something prempts states’ rights, they are not an elected body they do not have that legislative power, they can offer blanket legislation but if a state decides they dont like it,and puts up their own there is nothing they can do, they are not congress,

  • duheagle

    Even the FAA doesn’t have carte blanche authority to license space activity. That’s one of the things the National Space Council is supposed to be sorting out. Thus far, it seems the Trump administration favors making space mission licensing a one-stop-shopping proposition and to repose said licensing authority in a purpose-built division of the Commerce Dept. Space mission licensing of all kinds seems about to be removed entirely from the purview of the FAA.

  • Michael Halpern

    And traffic control isn’t anywhere near their area of expertise, which is why that should be FAA, at least for cert sat designs for certain altitudes depending on deorbit mechanism

  • Jeff2Space

    Good question. Even if they don’t have the authority, does Swarm Technologies have the cash to hire lawyers to fight this? But, in general, it’s always a good idea to not tick off regulatory agencies. They may have burned themselves thinking they could go ahead and launch and worry about the approvals later.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    At first I was thinking that the “FCC” was a typo. I can see the FCC’s role in coordinating communications frequencies so satellites in similar locations (as seen by ground stations) aren’t using the same frequencies.

    It’s best to get along with government regulatory agencies. Especially so for a commercial start up. If this were one of the big boys doing military work, they could probably smooth everything over with a phone call.