Swarm Technologies, the Silicon Valley creator of “SpaceBee” picosatellites, is an American start-up led by a former NASA and Google collaborator, based in California, founded in 2016 and which produces the world’s smallest two-way communication satellites, the SpaceBee. With these miniature satellites, Swarm Technologies wants to test in space a new type of Internet network, operating through a swarm of miniature satellites.
Since 2017, Swarm Technologies has built, launched and operated nine miniature satellites, raised more than twenty-eight million American dollars for a 150-spacecraft constellation, and forged agreements with some two hundred potential customers.
Swarm Technologies and space law
Four prototypes of the American start-up Swarm Technologies were illegally put into orbit on January 12, 2018, by Antrix Corporation Limited (Antrix), which could be presented as the commercial branch of the Indian Space Agency (ISRO). These stowaways (because Swarm Technologies knew they were not authorised by the Federal Communications Commission or FCC, an independent agency of the United States government created by statute to regulate interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable) were loaded aboard the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV-C40), containing a total of thirty-one satellites of different sizes. The information was revealed by the website IEEE Spectrum, and confirmed by the FCC.
“Whenever a U.S. company wants to send a satellite into orbit, it must apply for a license with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to access the radio frequencies needed to communicate with the satellite. The same is true for international companies hoping to do business with their spacecraft in the United States of America” says The Verge.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had rejected Swarm Technologies’ application for authorisation in December 2017, because, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the prototypes represented a risk of collision with other spacecraft due to their size. Each picosatellite is the size of a book, four times less than a standard CubeSat with a size of ten centimetres by ten centimetres by ten centimetres. According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), these picosatellites are not large enough to be tracked and located effectively in outer space, and could in case of software failure, turn into space debris potentially devastating for their neighbours. Swarm Technologies has added a GPS module and radar reflectors in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s fears, but for the latter, these precautions were not enough.
In addition, during its investigation, the FCC discovered that the start-up had been acting in the most complete illegality, including exploiting satellite signals for more than a week, by conducting unauthorised testing of weather balloons with the company (a ground station in Georgia and some equipment before the launch of “SpaceBee”). All of these activities normally require the approval of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Access to outer space is regulated
Contrary to what we might think, access to outer space is well and truly regulated. It is not possible to place any object in orbit around the Earth without having previously obtained certain permissions. For example, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires States to register all their space objects by registering them in a national register, which is then communicated to the United Nations (UN).
Article II of the Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space (entered into force on September 15, 1976), states that “1. When a space object is launched into Earth orbit or beyond, the launching State shall register the space object by means of an entry in an appropriate registry which it shall maintain. Each launching State shall inform the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the establishment of such a registry.
2. Where there are two or more launching States in respect of any such space object, they shall jointly determine which one of them shall register the object in accordance with paragraph 1 of this article, bearing in mind the provisions of article VIII of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, and without prejudice to appropriate agreements concluded or to be concluded among the launching States on jurisdiction and control over the space object and over any personnel thereof.
3. The contents of each registry and the conditions under which it is maintained shall be determined by the State of registry concerned”.
Such registration naturally implies that the authorities of the country in which the application was made have approved access to outer space. And this is not just about businesses; space agencies are also concerned. Thus, when NASA (United States of America), ESA (Europe) or any other space agency involved in the International Space Station (ISS) adds a new module, it must also be registered.
The registration application is not the only step to deal with. With respect to communication with the ground, one must also obtain, for the United States of America, permission from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the French case, the approval of the French Frequency Agency (ANFR for “Agence nationale des fréquences”), which must ensure that the file is compatible with the rules in force. If these are respected, requests for frequency assignments are communicated to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). From that moment, the lights are green to orbit an object around our planet.
Sanctions in case of illegal launch
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sanctioned the American start-up. The company was fined nine hundred thousand American dollars and subjected to extended surveillance for three years. This last point means that Swarm Technologies will have to notify to the FCC five days before the signing of a launch contract, and at least forty-five days before the effective date of this launch. The company, based in Los Altos, California, is now committed to strictly abide by the rules of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Reacting to this sanction, one of the FCC officials said that it is not about preventing start-ups from conquering outer space, but from doing so in an orderly manner. “These important obligations protect other operators from radio interferences and collisions, making space a safer place to operate”. No need to make a Wild West. Nonetheless, less than a year after these sanctions, for the least severe, Swarm Technologies has reinforced its relationship with the American Federal Communications Commission (FCC), to the point where the Silicon Valley start-up is closing in on a license to offer communication services in the United States of America. This is what can be said concerning Swarm Technologies and space law.