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FCC levies fine on space startup for illegal satellite launch

Swarm Technologies, a space startup which launched four tiny satellites without government authorisation earlier this year, will pay $900,000 to the US Treasury for the unapproved flight. The fine is part of a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission  (FCC), which probed the incident. The company will also have to conform to a ‘strict compliance plan’ and must produce extra documentation to the FCC in an event of launching more satellites in the future.

Swarm Technologies aims at sending up to hundred satellites into orbit to beam global internet coverage to Earth for connected devices.

On January 12, the company launched four tiny devices known as the SpaceBEEs on an Indian PSLV rocket. It surfaced later that Swarm was not issued a license for the satellites by FCC because the agency was concerned SpaceBEEs were too small and that they were difficult to track from Earth with the possibility of the devices colliding with other satellites. The FCC is an authorising body that determines which radio frequencies US companies can apply to communicate with their spacecraft and is responsible for other pertinent procedures.

In an investigation that FCC opened in March, the agency found that besides launching the device without license, Swarm had also illegally used ground communication stations in Georgia to communicate with the satellites for over a week while the spacecraft was in orbit. In addition to that, Swarm had also carried out unlawful tests with weather balloons and other equipment prior to the launch.

Swarm has now agreed to pay the huge fine to FCC besides submitting reports prior to every satellite launch for the next three years. The reports must include every detail about the launch vehicle that will carry the satellite, the location and time of the launch, and the contact details of whoever is coordinating the launch. The reports are to be submitted within five days of purchase of a rocket or within forty-five days of the flight. Swarm also needs to produce additional reports when the satellites are shipped to be integrated on the rocket and around the launch time.

The company is also liable to establish its own ‘compliance plan’ within the next two months and appoint a compliance officer who would ensure the company conforms to all the regulations around a satellite launch.

The FCC has already authorised the launch of three additional Swarm satellites that were launched successfully on a Space X Falcon 9 rocket earlier this month. However since Swarm is not involved in any further unapproved satellite activity, it is likely that the company will get license in the future.