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SpaceBEE design
As initially designed, Swarm Technologies’ controversial SpaceBEE satellites were each roughly the size of a sandwich. (Swarm Technologies Illustration via FCC)

The Federal Communications Commission says Swarm Technologies must pay a $900,000 fine and be subject to increased scrutiny for having a tiny set of satellites launched without authorization.

The penalties were laid out in a consent decree issued today.

“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 news release.  “These important obligations protect other operators against radio interference and collisions, making space a safer place to operate.”

California-based Swarm is aiming to develop a constellation of miniaturized telecommunications satellites that would enable “low-cost, space-based connectivity anywhere in the world.”

The company drew the FCC’s ire after a four-pack of its sandwich-sized satellites, known as SpaceBEEs, was launched aboard an Indian PSLV rocket in January — even though the agency had turned down its application for authorization. FCC officials were concerned that the 4-inch-wide, 1-inch-thick satellites would be too small to be tracked in orbit.

The launch was facilitated by Seattle-based Spaceflight, which said it was not aware at the time that Swarm’s application had been rejected.

After launch, Swarm proceeded with communication tests involving balloon-to-ground communications as well as unauthorized tests of its satellite and ground station equipment. That further annoyed the FCC.

In response, the agency temporarily set aside Swarm’s authorization for the launch of more conventional SpaceBEE communication satellites that fit the standard 4-by-4-by-4-inch CubeSat specifications.

Three of those redesigned SpaceBEEs finally ended up going into orbit this month, with the FCC’s blessing, as part of a 64-satellite swarm that was launched by a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket for Spaceflight’s dedicated-rideshare mission, also known as SSO-A or the SmallSat Express.

“Swarm met all the requirements on SSO-A, and we were happy to launch them,” said Jodi Sorensen, vice president for marketing and communications at Spaceflight’s Seattle-based parent company, Spaceflight Industries.

In its consent decree, the FCC said Swarm agreed to implement a five-year compliance plan and pay a $900,000 civil penalty for the unauthorized launch in January.

For the next three years, Swarm will be required to file a series of pre-launch reports about its satellite launches, starting five days after a launch agreement is struck and continuing up to five days before launch. And if Swarm lacks the FCC’s go-ahead at any step along the way, it will be required to let its launch providers and coordinators know and have its payloads removed from the pipeline for launch preparation.

Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo confirmed in a statement that her company accepted the consent decree, and voiced appreciation for “the FCC’s ongoing support for Swarm’s mission.”

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the penalty “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 also noted that commissioners rejected the original penalty that was negotiated by Swarm and the Enforcement Bureau.

“I take no real issue with their desire for a higher penalty, except that it is a new and diverging step to jettison an agreement reached between the bureau and a party on the size of a consent decree penalty,” he said in a written statement. “This eventually led to a reopening of negotiations with the party and the modification of the item.”

In a separately issued statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he “felt it was appropriate” to give his fellow commissioners 48 hours’ advance notice about the consent decree and let them weigh in. “That process, which incorporated my colleagues’ feedback, ultimately produced a better outcome,” Pai said.

Back in April, the FCC issued a reminder that satellite operators as well as launch service providers had an obligation to make sure the proper launch authorizations were in hand.

Spaceflight President Curt Blake acknowledged at a space conference in June that his company has tightened up its policies in the wake of the Swarm controversy. If a satellite operator lacks authorization when it’s time to integrate a spacecraft onto its deployer, generally around 30 days before launch, Blake said that would raise a warning sign.

“It’s fair to say that we probably won’t integrate it into the deployer without having a license,” he said in June. “But without question, it won’t be integrated on the launch vehicle.”

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