connectivity

How sandwich-sized satellites are helping transmit data from remote locations

SpaceX recently bought Swarm, the leading CubeSat maker. Here's what CubeSats do
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Swarm Technologies

· 4 min read

While the race to see which billionaire can push farther past the Kármán line commands most of the space biz headlines, some companies are charting a quieter path to space, launching constellations of tiny satellites that could accelerate the commercialization of the expanse above.

These satellites, which are shaped like a Rubik’s Cube and can be the size of a sandwich, are called CubeSats. They’re used to transmit small amounts of data from remote locations, allowing companies to monitor the goings-on in tough-to-reach areas without physically being there. For instance, using CubeSats, sensors located in a dense forest could relay information about a forest fire before it rages out of control. Due to their size, they’re usually cheaper than the legacy options available for moving the same data.

“It's a fairly new phenomenon really, because CubeSats maybe go back 15 years at most,” Henry Hertzfeld, research professor of space policy and international affairs at The George Washington University, told Emerging Tech Brew. “The launching of large numbers of these constellations is really in the last few years. It’s proliferated.”

Swarm Technologies, which has launched 120 satellites to date, is a buzzy player in this niche market. It was acquired by SpaceX in early August, and before that it had raised $27.7 million.

NASA classifies CubeSats as“part of a class of research spacecraft called nanosatellites,” generally built to about four inches on either side and weighing less than three pounds. Those rules aren’t hard and fast: Some CubeSats weigh as much as 53 pounds, but compared to, say, Starlink's standard satellite, which weighs around 575 pounds, they’re tiny.

CubeSats, like their bigger satellite cousins, have a wide range of applications, from satellite-to-satellite communications to vehicle tracking. They are also much cheaper to launch.

“CubeSats…can cost much less than a million dollars each,” Hertzfeld said. “They can be in low earth orbit pretty quickly, and do some of the services and some of the capabilities of billion dollar geo-satellites that are in a geosynchronous orbit.”

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Those savings can transfer back down to clients on the ground. For example, SweetSense, which manages water and energy services in remote environments, spends $5 per device per month on Swarm’s data plan, and a flat $120 on its tiles, SweetSense CEO Evan Thomas told us. He said SweetSense used to spend $30 per device per month, and a flat $300 per radio, with legacy satellite provider Iridium.

The tradeoff is that CubeSats can only move small amounts of data. Swarm’s network normally moves data at one to three kilobits per second, CEO and cofounder Sara Spangelo told us. Contrast that with Starlink, which transmits data at speeds anywhere from 50 megabits per second (Mbps) to 150Mbps. Another downside of their tiny size is that CubeSats can be hard to track, endangering other spacecraft as a result—in 2018, Swarm’s stealthy launch of four satellites drew the ire of the FCC, which fined the company $900,000.

In Swarm’s case, the company affixes a tiny tile to a device like, for example, a moisture sensor or buoy. Once affixed, the tile tracks the moisture sensor anywhere in the world. The moisture sensor can then be programmed by the user to measure moisture levels at their preferred cadence, like every 15 minutes, and ping that data to Swarm's sandwich-sized satellites in the sky above. The receiving CubeSat will route it to Swarm's data collection centers on the ground, and eventually back to the client.

“On cellular, [coverage] is just not universal. We're on [water] pumps out in the middle of Kenya or the middle of Sacramento County,” Thomas said. “These are fixed assets. You can't move a pump around to where there's a cell phone signal. We need to have an ability to operate anywhere, not just where there are cell phone signals.”

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