FCC fines start-up of former Google, Apple engineers for unauthorized satellite launch

Swarm Technologies

Swarm Technologies

Earlier this year, a startup called Swarm Technologies was accused of launching four small satellites without permission.

Swarm Technologies didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Swarm Technologies will pay $900,000 to settle an investigation by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission into the startup's launch of four picosatellites on an Indian rocket this January without regulatory approval, the FCC announced December 20.

Space noted that the company went ahead with the deployment anyway. It hasn't announced any other backers beyond government grants, but is working closely with San Francisco-based investors Craft Ventures.

Swarm co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Sara Spangelo said in a statement on Thursday that the company accepts the FCC decision "and appreciates the FCC's ongoing support for Swarm's mission".

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Swarm now has seven SpaceBee satellites in orbit for space-based Internet of Things connectivity. The agency had feared they would be too small to be detected in space, potentially raising the danger of collision. 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. The FCC withdrew an authorization it previously granted for another four satellites Swarm meant to launch on a Rocket Lab Electron mission that occurred in April.

What's more, an investigation into operations by Swarm-which only copped to its unprecedented misdeed after the FCC caught on-also turned up "several unauthorised weather balloon-to-ground station tests and unauthorised tests of its satellite and ground station equipment".

Swarm also communicated with its "SpaceBee" satellites illegally for more than a week using earth stations in the state of Georgia. When confronted about it, the company admitted to sending the orbiters up, and the FCC launched an investigation.

O'Rielly said an initial fine negotiated by FCC staff was rejected by some commissioners, which led to reopening settlement talks. That's likely because it was hard for the FCC to identify specific harm to third parties caused by Swarm's actions beyond the company's statutory violations, according to lawyers familiar with the FCC.

FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly said the size of the penalty "is probably not significant enough to deter future behaviour" but that the "negative press coverage is likely to prevent this company and others from attempting to do this again".

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