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FCC calls out startup for launching tiny rogue satellites

A Silicon Valley startup reportedly launched four small satellites in January after the FCC denied its application over safety concerns.


The Swarm Technologies' satellites were reportedly launched on a rocket operated by the Indian space agency ISRO on Jan. 12.


US regulators have accused a small Silicon Valley startup of launching satellites without permission.

In December, the Federal Communications Commission denied Swarm Technologies, a stealthy startup headed by a former Google employee, permission to launch four of its tiny satellites. But the company apparently launched them anyway, according to a report from tech news site IEEE Spectrum. If confirmed, it would be the first time a company has done so without FCC approval. 

The agency denied the application for launching the satellites because of safety concerns, the FCC said in its letter. The satellites, which measure less than 4 inches on one side, are too small to be detected by the US Space Surveillance Network, which keeps track of all man-made objects orbiting the Earth. Without the ability to track the satellites, they could hit other spacecraft in orbit and cause significant damage, the agency said.

Swarm has been developing a network of tiny satellites called SpaceBees that could be used to connect via the internet billions of trackers and sensors all over the world. The Menlo Park, California, company was co-founded by CEO Sara Spangelo, who formerly worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and on Google's spacecraft concept for its moonshot X division.

The company says it can slash the cost of enabling satellite communications for billions of connected devices. The idea is to build a worldwide network that can be used to track ships and cars, as well as enable new agricultural technologies, and provide low-cost internet access for humanitarian efforts in hard-to-reach parts of the world. The four SpaceBees were supposed to be the first demonstration of Swarm's prototype hardware, according to the IEEE Spectrum article on Friday.

An FCC spokesman said the agency is "aware of the situation" with Swarm Technologies, but wouldn't comment further about whether any enforcement action will be taken against the company. The FCC has also set aside the company's application for permission to conduct another operation related to the tiny satellites next month.

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

Several other companies, such as SpaceX and OneWeb, also want to use hundreds of small satellites to provide connectivity for internet of things devices. 

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