A year after making a $900,000 mistake, Swarm Technologies is raking in $25 million in a funding round aimed at getting a constellation of sandwich-sized satellites up and running for the Internet of Things.
Getting the constellation in orbit could open up a big frontier for tiny satellites within the next year and a half.
“We’re just excited to get launched and get our network up there and start offering global, affordable internet,” said Swarm CEO Sara Spangelo, a veteran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Alphabet’s X “moonshot factory.”
The satellites, known as SpaceBEEs, are so small that the Federal Communications Commission turned down the Silicon Valley startup’s application for a launch license last January. The mission went ahead anyway — largely because Seattle-based Spaceflight, the company that was taking care of the logistics for liftoff aboard an Indian PSLV rocket, didn’t know Swarm’s application had been rejected.
Last month, Swarm agreed to pay the FCC’s hefty fine, submit to closer oversight for the next three years and draw up a detailed plan for compliance with the agency’s rules. “It’s probably sufficient to say we take all compliance issues very seriously,” Spangelo told GeekWire on Friday.
The FCC swatted down Swarm’s initial application because regulators worried that the 4-by-4-by-1-inch SpaceBEEs (with BEE standing for Basic Electronic Element) couldn’t be tracked by authorities. If that were the case, it would heighten the risk of collision and damage to unsuspecting spacecraft in low Earth orbit.
Swarm had equipped its SpaceBEEs with radar reflectors to make them more detectable, and ran trackability tests in orbit. The fact that the tests proceeded even though the satellites were unlicensed initially added to the FCC’s ire. But Spangelo said the resulting radar readings, picked up by NORAD and a space tracking startup called LeoLabs, could persuade the FCC to approve future SpaceBEEs.
“All of that data is super-supportive toward the case that they’re trackable,” Spangelo said. “Recently we’ve had some great meetings with the FCC, and we’ve gotten positive indications that that argument is sound.”
To advance the program while Swarm resolves its SpaceBEE issues, the company worked with Spaceflight to get three 4-by-4-by-4-inch satellites — as big as a tissue box rather than a sandwich — launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket last month.
Spangelo is hoping that the sandwich-sized nanosatellites will be cleared for liftoff in time for Swarm’s next launch, tentatively planned for sometime in the spring. Because of delays caused by the partial government shutdown, “we’re unclear on the status, so I can’t really comment on it much more than that,” she said.
Swarm’s plan calls for putting 150 SpaceBEEs into low Earth orbit within the next 18 months to provide round-the-world data connectivity. “Even with one or five or 30 satellites, we can start to offer services, particularly for applications that don’t constantly need a satellite overhead,” Spangelo said.
The company is already providing connected-car services on an experimental basis for Autonomic and Ford, and communications support for SweetSense’s satellite-based infrastructure sensor network. Spangelo said Swarm is working on pilot projects with dozens of other, undisclosed ventures as well.
In order to go commercial and start charging for services, Swarm will need to win the appropriate licenses from the FCC. But the promise has been great enough to attract big-name backers for the company’s $25 million Series A financing round.
The round was led by Craft Ventures and Sky Dayton, the founder of EarthLink and Boingo, with participation from Social Capital, 4DX Ventures and NJF Capital.
“Swarm is turning the satellite industry on its head,” Dayton said in a news release.
“Others continue to focus on high bandwidth networks that are very expensive, power-hungry, difficult to integrate, and will take years and billions of dollars to bring online,” he said. “Swarm has developed something entirely new: a low-bandwidth, latency-tolerant network that is extremely inexpensive, low-power and very easy to integrate for things that need to be connected anywhere in the world — and Swarm is doing it in a tenth the time of a traditional satellite network build.”
Swarm chief technology officer Ben Longmier, who co-founded the company with Spangelo in 2016, said “we’re just getting started.” The freshly raised investments will go toward building more satellites, laying the regulatory groundwork for the constellation, paying for future launches and expanding the company’s team from 11 people to around 25 to 30 by the end of the year.
“Obviously funding is pretty important,” Spangelo said.
Eventually, Swarm aims to make IoT data available on a global scale for connected cars, agricultural crop sensors, maritime shipping containers and smart meters.
“We do have aspirations of also doing direct-to-consumer — eventually being able to purchase a Swarm device and a Swarm data service, so that you could get one our little trackers and be able to use that when you’re out hiking or sailing in the middle of nowhere with no cell connectivity, to relay messages back to the internet,” Spangelo said. “But that’s more of our longer-term vision. We’re very focused on the IoT, device-to-device enterprise applications, particularly in the next six to 12 months.”