Monday, February 14, 2022

The first illegal satellite launch in history

Normally when I read about LoRa, I am reading a story about IoT devices in a smart-home installation, and always in the future-tense. As of late a few LoRa devices have made it to market, mostly bleeding edge makes of dubious origin. Choovio, for example, has a door sensor and a leak sensor. They don't have a thermostat, but a temperature sensor. There are a few makes of water meters out there as well. There's a selection of even more anonymous brand LoRa devices shipping directly from China on

LoRa is a real radio protocol, but it's application is still mostly hypothetical until a major brand releases a fully supported, and more commercially viable home device. It needs to be robust, something you might touch every day: a thermostat, light switch or dimmer. Despite all the marketing noise, we are just not there yet. I'll get into the vices and virtues of that radio protocol some other time. More here.

So in that void, the most notable LoRa radio story to date was a one-of-a-kind crime committed by the company Swarm Technologies Inc... which is owned by SpaceX. (Yeah... that guy.) It was the first illegal satellite launch in history. In fairness, Warm was only bought out by SpaceX in August 2021. This they did on their own.  On April 26th 2017, Swarm Technologies applied to the FCC for permission to deploy an experimental radio service license for its initial "picosatellites." 

Those picosatellites are  just what they sound like, little tiny satellites. These confirm to the 0.25U CubeSat form factor. That is often described as about the size of a grilled cheese sandwich: 11 x 11 x 2.8 cm, weighing only 400 grams. Starlinks' already "tiny" satellites are about 260 Kg. 

Getting back to the felons. Swarm Technologies filed for a license in the Experimental Radio Service, under Part 5 of the FCC’s rules to deploy and operate four SpaceBEEs (Basic Electronic Elements) and two earth stations. [LINK] On December 12, 2017 the FCC said no, a hard "NO" on that application. They were concerned about swarms ability to track the satellites. 

On January 8th, 2018, Swarm Technologies filed a second application for authorization to launch and operate a different set of satellites that were a more conventional small satellite size. That second application was still pending when on January 12th through the 21st of 2018, Swarm Technologies launched the original four SpaceBEEs. (This, by the way, is a terrible idea. When the FCC says no, they are quite willing to back that up.) More here.

With some irony, the FCC, wholly unaware of that January launch, granted Swarm Technologies’ second application on February 5, 2018. But by them Swarm had 4 illegally orbiting picosatellites already transmitting to and received transmissions from their two Georgia-based earth stations. 

On March 5th 2018 The FCC learned about the unauthorized launch and began an investigation. During that investigation they discovered that Swarm Technologies had also illegally performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests, including to and from moving vehicles. 

All-in-all the FCC went light on them. No one was criminally charged. The consent decree even lightly praised Swarm Technologies for obeying the law during the course of the investigation. A convoluted wad of verbage which can only be attributed to a radical libertarian like Ajit Pai. Nonetheless the fine was a notable $900,000. This is not a record fine by any measure. The record by the way is 225 million, by comparison this was a swat on the wrist. Swarm Technologies was even permitted to continue operating the network afterward. The event, as a whole, remains a testament to the sense of entitlement and bravado commonplace among techbros.

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