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FCC slams spaceflight company with $900,000 fine over illegal satellite launch

FCC slams spaceflight company with $900,000 fine over illegal satellite launch


Plus: more paperwork

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An Indian PSLV rocket, which was used to launch the Swarm satellites
An Indian PSLV rocket, which was used to launch the Swarm satellites
Photo: Indian Space Research Organization

Space startup Swarm Technologies, which launched four tiny satellites without government approval earlier this year, has agreed to pay $900,000 to the US Treasury for the unauthorized flight. The fine is part of a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission, which investigated the incident. The company will also have to adhere to a “strict compliance plan” and must submit extra documentation to the FCC whenever it hopes to launch more satellites in the future.

Swarm Technologies is a fairly new player in the space field, with hopes of eventually sending up to 100 satellites into orbit to beam global internet coverage to Earth for connected devices. On January 12th, the company launched its first satellites on an Indian PSLV rocket, four tiny devices known as the SpaceBEEs. However, it soon emerged after the launch that Swarm had been denied a license for the satellites by the FCC, which is responsible for designating which radio frequencies US companies can use to communicate with their spacecraft. The agency was worried that the SpaceBEEs were too small and would be difficult to track from Earth, making it hard to know if they might collide with other satellites.

part of a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission

In March, the FCC opened an investigation into the incident. The agency found that not only had Swarm launched without a license, but it had also illegally used ground communication stations in Georgia to communicate with the satellites for over a week while the spacecraft were in orbit. Plus, the company had done some unlawful tests with weather balloons and other equipment before the launch. The FCC is responsible for authorizing all of these procedures, but hadn’t approved Swarm to do them.

One of Swarm’s 1/4U SpaceBEE satellites.
One of Swarm’s 1/4U SpaceBEE satellites.
Photo: Courtesy of Swarm

Along with paying a massive fine, Swarm has agreed to submit reports to the FCC before every satellite launch it wants to make for the next three years. These reports must include all of the details about the launch vehicle that will carry the satellites, the time and location of the launch, and contact information for who is coordinating the launch. And Swarm has to do this a lot, too. Reports need to be submitted within five days of Swarm purchasing a ride on a rocket, or within 45 days of the flight. Additional reports must be submitted when the satellites are shipped to be integrated on the rocket, whenever the satellites are actually integrated, and around the time the launch is supposed to take place.

Within the next two months, Swarm must also establish its own “compliance plan” and appoint a compliance officer to make sure the company adheres to all of the regulations surrounding a satellite launch. This entails crafting clearly defined procedures and checklists that every employee must follow to confirm that the FCC’s licensing requirements are being met.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the FCC and Swarm had come to a different agreement earlier, but some within the agency considered the settlement too low and ultimately rejected it. Negotiations had to resume again to reach this final agreement. And now, Swarm says it will comply with all the terms. “We accept the decision of the FCC as reflected in its consent decree and appreciate the FCC’s ongoing support for Swarm’s mission,” Sara Spangelo, Swarm’s CEO and co-founder, said in a statement to The Verge.

“the negative press coverage is likely to prevent this company and others from attempting to do this again.”

In the future, the FCC says it will review Swarm’s launch applications on a case-by-case basis. But it seems likely that the company will get licenses in the future. In fact, the agency already approved the launch of three additional Swarm satellites, which successfully flew to space on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in early December. And the FCC says that since the January incident, Swarm has not engaged in any further unauthorized satellite activity.

Today’s settlement may serve as an effective deterrent for other satellite operators, especially fledgling companies, that might consider launching satellites without a license. Having to do even more paperwork to go to space could decrease efficiency, and a fine of nearly $1 million isn’t a small amount, even for companies used to dealing with astronomical sums of money. But the cost to their public reputation might be even more effective than the blow to their bank account. “The size of the penalty imposed is probably not significant enough to deter future behavior, but the negative press coverage is likely to prevent this company and others from attempting to do this again,” O’Rielly said in a statement.

And to amplify its seriousness, the FCC also sent out an advisory in April, warning other satellite operators not to do what Swarm did or else they would also suffer consequences.

“We will aggressively enforce the FCC’s requirements that companies seek FCC authorization prior to deploying and operating communications satellites and earth stations,” Rosemary Harold, Chief of the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, said in a statement. “These important obligations protect other operators against radio interference and collisions, making space a safer place to operate.”