Author Topic: FCC accuses stealth space startup [Swarm] of unauthorized satellite deployment.  (Read 4529 times)

Offline Thomas Dorman

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FCC accuses stealth space startup of unauthorized satellite deployment.
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/fcc-accuses-stealth-space-startup-235654345.html

For more analysis of the possible implications of this incident see also:
https://forum.nasaspaceflight.com/index.php?topic=45206

« Last Edit: 07/07/2018 12:02 pm by gongora »

Offline deruch

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FCC accuses stealth space startup of unauthorized satellite deployment.
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/fcc-accuses-stealth-space-startup-235654345.html
This article from IEEE Spectrum is much better.  The problem wasn't just that they lacked FCC approval.  FCC approval wasn't absolutely needed, per se.  It's that Swarm's uplink/downlink ground stations were in US territory AND they lacked FCC approval.  If the allegations in the article are true--including the timeline of events--it's likely that Swarm did seriously violate rules.  I'm doubtful that they could have scrapped their whole communications plan, procured new ground stations outside US jurisdiction, and secured spectrum allocation and payload approval from the relevant government all within the less than 2 months between FCC denial and PSLV launch.  Should have delayed the launch.  Another potentially legal option might have been to launch totally dark, without any communications (might have necessitated actually disabling the transmitter/receiver on the satellites? and definitely no GPS-position repeater/transponder).  But that wouldn't serve much purpose besides possibly testing the radar reflecting material they apparently got from the Navy.  And, frankly IMO, India would be coming pretty close to violating her international obligations to have launched such a payload under such terms (i.e. dark). 
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Online gongora

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FCC accuses stealth space startup of unauthorized satellite deployment.
https://www.yahoo.com/finance/news/fcc-accuses-stealth-space-startup-235654345.html
This article from IEEE Spectrum is much better.  The problem wasn't just that they lacked FCC approval.  FCC approval wasn't absolutely needed, per se.  It's that Swarm's uplink/downlink ground stations were in US territory AND they lacked FCC approval.  If the allegations in the article are true--including the timeline of events--it's likely that Swarm did seriously violate rules.  I'm doubtful that they could have scrapped their whole communications plan, procured new ground stations outside US jurisdiction, and secured spectrum allocation and payload approval from the relevant government all within the less than 2 months between FCC denial and PSLV launch.  Should have delayed the launch.  Another potentially legal option might have been to launch totally dark, without any communications (might have necessitated actually disabling the transmitter/receiver on the satellites? and definitely no GPS-position repeater/transponder).  But that wouldn't serve much purpose besides possibly testing the radar reflecting material they apparently got from the Navy.  And, frankly IMO, India would be coming pretty close to violating her international obligations to have launched such a payload under such terms (i.e. dark).

U.S. companies need some sort of government permission to launch a payload, and the reason the FCC gave for rejecting it would still apply if they were launched dark.  This was a stupid thing to do.  We really don't need space startups to start acting like Uber.

Offline deruch

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U.S. companies need some sort of government permission to launch a payload, and the reason the FCC gave for rejecting it would still apply if they were launched dark.  This was a stupid thing to do.  We really don't need space startups to start acting like Uber.

No they don't.  Or, rather everyone does but it doesn't need to be US government permission.  I don't believe there is the same regulations on payload operators that there is on launch providers whereby all actions of "US persons" automatically fall under US law/oversight.  Since this payload was launched on a PSLV, then ISRO and by extension India was responsible.  In this case, the FCC was only involved because of the ground station siting.  And, since the FCC was the licensing authority for the communications the payload also had to pass through the Commission's assessment of Orbital Debris impacts/risks.  Commission rules require them to consider that for all payloads they license.  My point wasn't that the FCC's reasons for rejecting the application would cease to exist should the payloads launch dark, but rather that if they launched dark the FCC would no longer have any involvement in issuing licenses or therefore reviewing the payload.  That would leave India, the government with launch oversight, as the sole reviewer and in sole possession of responsibility to make any such determination. 

I agree.  It was totally idiotic.  Now they're gonna get burned for it.
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Online whitelancer64

U.S. companies need some sort of government permission to launch a payload, and the reason the FCC gave for rejecting it would still apply if they were launched dark.  This was a stupid thing to do.  We really don't need space startups to start acting like Uber.

No they don't.  Or, rather everyone does but it doesn't need to be US government permission.  I don't believe there is the same regulations on payload operators that there is on launch providers whereby all actions of "US persons" automatically fall under US law/oversight.  Since this payload was launched on a PSLV, then ISRO and by extension India was responsible.  In this case, the FCC was only involved because of the ground station siting.  And, since the FCC was the licensing authority for the communications the payload also had to pass through the Commission's assessment of Orbital Debris impacts/risks.  Commission rules require them to consider that for all payloads they license.  My point wasn't that the FCC's reasons for rejecting the application would cease to exist should the payloads launch dark, but rather that if they launched dark the FCC would no longer have any involvement in issuing licenses or therefore reviewing the payload.  That would leave India, the government with launch oversight, as the sole reviewer and in sole possession of responsibility to make any such determination. 

I agree.  It was totally idiotic.  Now they're gonna get burned for it.

US companies absolutely do need US government permissions to launch satellites. Even if they are launching on another nation's rocket. The basic legal framework for this is laid out in the Outer Space Treaty.

Maybe Swarm thought they could get away without the launch permit since they were launching on an Indian rocket, but they seem to be quite sadly mistaken.
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Online Bananas_on_Mars

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It certainly feels like the reason for the FCC   to cancel the permit is quite arbitrary after they included the radar reflectors.
Tracking stations have no problems tracking those satellites, they have about the same radar crosssection as a typical 3U cubesat.

Relevant tweet

Online whitelancer64

It certainly feels like the reason for the FCC   to cancel the permit is quite arbitrary after they included the radar reflectors.
Tracking stations have no problems tracking those satellites, they have about the same radar crosssection as a typical 3U cubesat.

Relevant tweet

Swarm did take measures to increase their satellites' radar visibility. The FCC deemed those measures insufficient.

“As an object gets below 1U in size, it gets difficult to track, which means it’s harder to predict if there’s going to be a conjunction with another satellite,” says Marcus Holzinger, an aerospace professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and expert on orbital safety. “Anything that size impacting at orbital velocities can be catastrophic.”

Swarm Technologies had realized that the small size of its BEEs might be a problem. It installed a GPS device in each satellite that would broadcast its position when requested. It also covered each of the satellite’s four smallest faces with an experimental passive radar reflector developed by the U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. According to Swarm’s FCC application, this would increase the BEE’s radar profile by a factor of 10.

But the FCC was not buying it. After correspondence back and forth through the summer, the FCC sent Swarm a letter in early December. In it, Anthony Serafini, chief of the FCC’s Experimental Licensing Branch, noted that the radar reflector only operated in a certain frequency band, corresponding to “a small portion” of America’s ground-based Space Surveillance Network. He also worried that GPS data would only be available while the satellite was functional."

https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/aerospace/satellites/fcc-accuses-stealthy-startup-of-launching-rogue-satellites
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"There are lies, damned lies, and launch schedules." - Larry J

Online gongora

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Swarm has applied for permission to communicate with the illegally launched satellites so they can share the location data.

1140-EX-ST-2018
Quote
Swarm seeks narrow authority to transmit data from the SpaceBEE satellites in
order to access tracking information. The SpaceBEE satellites will only transmit to
enable downlinking of GPS data, and will be muted at all other times.


Online gongora

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FCC Reaches $900,000 Settlement for Unauthorized Satellite Launch
Quote
FCC REACHES $900,000 SETTLEMENT WITH SWARM FOR UNAUTHORIZED SATELLITE LAUNCH
Company Agrees to Substantial Penalty and Strict Compliance Plan
 --
WASHINGTON, December 20, 2018—The Federal Communications Commission today announced it has settled an investigation into Swarm Technologies’ unauthorized launch and operation of small satellites. The company agreed to a settlement which included a $900,000 penalty, an extended period of FCC oversight, and a requirement of pre-launch notices to the
Commission, among other stipulations.

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

In April 2017, Swarm applied for an experimental radio service license to deploy and operate two earth stations and four small satellites, called SpaceBEEs or BEEs (Basic Electronic Elements). The FCC denied Swarm’s application in December 2017 over concerns about the ability to track the satellites. Swarm nevertheless launched the satellites on January 12, 2018.

The FCC began its investigation in March 2018 following reports of the unauthorized launch. The investigation found that Swarm had launched the four BEEs using an unaffiliated launch company in India and had unlawfully transmitted signals between earth stations in Georgia and the satellites for over a week. In addition, during the course of its investigation, the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests and other unauthorized equipment tests prior to the small satellites launch. All these activities require FCC authorization and the company had not received such authorization before the activities occurred.

Today’s settlement represents a final resolution of the FCC’s investigation. It requires Swarm to pay a penalty $900,000 to the U.S. Treasury. In addition, the company must submit prelaunch reports to the FCC for the next three years. These reports are required within five days of signing an agreement to launch and at least 45 days before the planned launch. In addition, Swarm has committed to a strict compliance plan to prevent future violations of FCC rules. Going forward, the FCC’s Office of Engineering and Technology and the International Bureau will continue to consider Swarm applications on a case-by-case basis. Since the start of the FCC investigation, Swarm has not engaged in any unauthorized deployment or operation of satellites or other radio frequency devices and has sought the appropriate licenses for future satellite deployment and operation.

In addition to starting the investigation, the FCC issued an enforcement advisory in April 2018 in response to these actions. The advisory reminded satellite operators that they must obtain FCC authorization for space station and earth station operations. The advisory cautioned satellite operators and launch companies against proceeding with launch arrangements following a license denial or prior to receiving an FCC authorization. The Enforcement Advisory is available at: https://go.usa.gov/xPFwB.

The Swarm settlement, formally known as a Consent Decree, is available at:
https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/FCC-18-184A1.pdf.
« Last Edit: 12/20/2018 09:13 pm by gongora »

Offline QuantumG

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I do wonder what the rest of this story is...
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline mlindner

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Quote
the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests

I find that interesting. We used to do transmissions between ground stations and balloons or antennas on rooftops in prep for our cubesat launches and I don't remember us ever having any FCC license needed when we were working on cubesats. I could have just not been privy to it.

I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this. I can only imagine a miscommunication occurred which is the cause of all this. I notice that there was a very short time period between the December denial and the January launch. They probably would have already shipped the satellites to the integration facility at that point for integration so I can only assume they missed the notice. They wouldn't have been contacting their satellites with ground stations if they had known they got denied.

Quote
Additionally, Swarm Technologies
admitted that on two occasions it performed unauthorized tests of equipment by directing unlaunched
satellites and earth stations located in the same garage to exchange transmissions.

Honestly I think the FCC is taking things a bit too far. Those transmissions would likely not leave the building.
« Last Edit: 12/21/2018 02:54 am by mlindner »
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Offline ChrisWilson68

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Quote
the FCC discovered that Swarm had also performed unauthorized weather balloon-to-ground station tests

I find that interesting. We used to do transmissions between ground stations and balloons or antennas on rooftops in prep for our cubesat launches and I don't remember us ever having any FCC license needed when we were working on cubesats. I could have just not been privy to it.

I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this. I can only imagine a miscommunication occurred which is the cause of all this. I notice that there was a very short time period between the December denial and the January launch. They probably would have already shipped the satellites to the integration facility at that point for integration so I can only assume they missed the notice. They wouldn't have been contacting their satellites with ground stations if they had known they got denied.

Quote
Additionally, Swarm Technologies
admitted that on two occasions it performed unauthorized tests of equipment by directing unlaunched
satellites and earth stations located in the same garage to exchange transmissions.

Honestly I think the FCC is taking things a bit too far. Those transmissions would likely not leave the building.

To me, it doesn't seem like the FCC took it too far.  I think a $900,000 fine and a consent decree is a reasonable settlement, given what happened -- assuming it really was all unintentional.  If it was intentional, they should have had a higher penalty, in my opinion.

If it were just about an unauthorized test in a garage, the penalty would be excessive.  But that's the least of what Swarm did.  Whether by accident or on purpose, they made some serious violations, and these sorts of violations can cause problems for others.  The incentives have to be set right for companies to follow these sorts of rules, which means having serious enough consequences that companies won't find the costs of violating the rules to be worth it.

Imagine the next company that comes along and gets denied their license.  They see that it will cost them less than a million dollars to just go ahead and launch, and they're burning more than that in the next three months that they figure it might take them to get the license approved, and they might miss their ride-share launch.  So they decide it makes good business sense to eat the $900,000 and go ahead and launch.

If you don't want companies to decide to violate the rules, the penalties need to be stiff enough that under most reasonable circumstances they'll decide it's not in their interests to violate them.  And if ignorance is allowed as an excuse, then suddenly you're penalizing people for knowing the rules and you'll see a huge rise in ignorance.

Offline QuantumG

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Meh, in my opinion the FCC has no right to enforce any of this. What good does talking about that do?

I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this. I can only imagine a miscommunication occurred which is the cause of all this.

Could you ask 'em? That'd be great.
Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Bunsen

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I find that interesting. We used to do transmissions between ground stations and balloons or antennas on rooftops in prep for our cubesat launches and I don't remember us ever having any FCC license needed when we were working on cubesats. I could have just not been privy to it.
A license was certainly required for that, but since enforcement is mostly triggered by complaints, a lot of people get away with violating the regulations as long as they don't get noticed and piss somebody off.  Some university teams can handle ground testing with personal amateur licenses, as long as the people doing the testing aren't getting paid in any way.  Even that is a bit of a stretch of the regulations, since the FCC doesn't consider funded university research to be an "amateur purpose" anymore.

For situations where the testing is inescapably performed as part of a paid project, or for frequencies outside the amateur bands, an experimental license has to be applied for and granted before any free-space radiation is legal.  The Part 15 homebuilt transmitter exemption doesn't apply at all, since a satellite prototype is clearly not for personal use.

Quote
I notice that there was a very short time period between the December denial and the January launch. They probably would have already shipped the satellites to the integration facility at that point for integration so I can only assume they missed the notice. They wouldn't have been contacting their satellites with ground stations if they had known they got denied.
That's like telling the cop that pulled you over "Sorry, I forgot that I never got a driver's license."  There's no presumption of authority to transmit -- until you get the license grant, you can't legally transmit and (at least in the US) you can't legally launch.  If there had been a prior license grant that was later modified or revoked, then they might be able to claim it was a misunderstanding, but that wasn't the case.  They had been in conversation with the FCC quite a bit about the reasons the FCC was reluctant to approve their application.

Quote
Quote
Additionally, Swarm Technologies
admitted that on two occasions it performed unauthorized tests of equipment by directing unlaunched
satellites and earth stations located in the same garage to exchange transmissions.

Honestly I think the FCC is taking things a bit too far. Those transmissions would likely not leave the building.
Unless they can produce an engineering analysis, made prior to the transmissions, to prove that the building was a sufficiently good Faraday cage, then those transmissions were illegal also.  If that were the only transgression, though, we wouldn't be talking about it.  A minor first offense like that generally just gets a formally threatening "knock it off" letter.  I expect the reason it was mentioned was to support that they had a pattern of not asking permission.

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I find that interesting. We used to do transmissions between ground stations and balloons or antennas on rooftops in prep for our cubesat launches and I don't remember us ever having any FCC license needed when we were working on cubesats.
It depends on the frequency and power levels. If the people involved have ham licenses, they can do a lot more than the pure unlicensed, but there are restrictions on commercial activity.

Or it may have just been illegal, low power stuff is relatively unlikely to noticed when you don't shoot it into space on rocket. Swarm only got busted because FCC was already investigating them.
Quote
I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this.

This article strongly suggests they did:
Quote
When I asked Spangelo why she didn’t stop the launch when the FCC denied Swarm’s application, she said, “Others have been granted applications after launching their satellites, so we were still hopeful at that point.”

Online hop

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Meh, in my opinion the FCC has no right to enforce any of this.
The US court system  clearly believes the FCC has the right to enforce regulations, which is in this instance the only opinion that makes a material difference.
I do wonder what the rest of this story is...
Swarm broke the law, got caught, and agreed to pay up. There's no evidence that any additional story is required.

It does seem possible the FCC wanted to set an example to make sure people didn't get in the habit of doing the "oopsie I didn't get my license in time for launch, please give me one now" thing. Unfortunate for Swarm, but probably better for the long term health of the industry.
« Last Edit: 12/21/2018 04:58 am by hop »

Offline QuantumG

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Meh, in my opinion the FCC has no right to enforce any of this.
The US court system  clearly believes the FCC has the right to enforce regulations, which is in this instance the only opinion that makes a material difference.

You deliberately cut my quote short so you could get a cheap shot at me. Grow up.

Human spaceflight is basically just LARPing now.

Offline Lar

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Meh, in my opinion the FCC has no right to enforce any of this.
The US court system  clearly believes the FCC has the right to enforce regulations, which is in this instance the only opinion that makes a material difference.

You deliberately cut my quote short so you could get a cheap shot at me. Grow up.
I'm not clear that "what good does talking about that do" was necessary for hop to discuss your comment.[1]

Stop squabbling.

1 - personally you and I are on the same side of this but that doesn't mean you get to be squabbly.
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Offline mlindner

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Meh, in my opinion the FCC has no right to enforce any of this. What good does talking about that do?

I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this. I can only imagine a miscommunication occurred which is the cause of all this.

Could you ask 'em? That'd be great.

I never had direct contacts with them. They would do things like come to review meetings, or sometimes be working out of the same lab working on a different project. They were graduate/post-graduate students or professors and I was an undergraduate. So the contact was one-directional for the most part. I've since moved across the country (Ann Arbor to San Jose) so have lost most of those contacts. I also no longer work with cubesats/spacecraft so I'm in a different industry, though I want to get back into that at some point later in my career.
« Last Edit: 12/22/2018 01:08 am by mlindner »
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Offline mlindner

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I find that interesting. We used to do transmissions between ground stations and balloons or antennas on rooftops in prep for our cubesat launches and I don't remember us ever having any FCC license needed when we were working on cubesats.
It depends on the frequency and power levels. If the people involved have ham licenses, they can do a lot more than the pure unlicensed, but there are restrictions on commercial activity.

Or it may have just been illegal, low power stuff is relatively unlikely to noticed when you don't shoot it into space on rocket. Swarm only got busted because FCC was already investigating them.
Quote
I've met both of the primary people at Swarm multiple times before and they're both very smart (much smarter than I). They were both previously at University of Michigan. I can't imagine them intentionally doing this.

This article strongly suggests they did:
Quote
When I asked Spangelo why she didn’t stop the launch when the FCC denied Swarm’s application, she said, “Others have been granted applications after launching their satellites, so we were still hopeful at that point.”

Yes the whole team got HAM licenses, though we only need technician's licenses which are dead simple to get. That sparks my memory a bit and I think that was the explanation given. The person doing the button clicking had to have the license, at least when we were outdoors. My memory is failing me if our bench top setups of the engineering unit were transmitting or if we just hooked into the outgoing signal pre-radio and routed it via wire to the computer for testing.

Thanks for the article, interesting read. It sounds like they could have argued "selective enforcement" though if it's actually true that others have launched without licenses and then been granted them after launch. She's a good person though, what I knew of her.
« Last Edit: 12/22/2018 01:11 am by mlindner »
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