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Starlink: How SpaceX’s new acquisition could power all-new uses

SpaceX is acquiring Swarm Technologies, which it claims are the smallest commercially operated satellites in space.

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SpaceX is making big moves with small satellites.

On Monday, CNBC announced that the spaceflight firm is acquiring Swarm Technologies. The California-based firm claims to have “the smallest commercially operational satellites in space,” with each similar in size to a small book.

The acquisition, noted by CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz following a Federal Communications Commission filing, is its latest move in its growing satellite operations.

It’s unclear at this stage what SpaceX plans to do with Swarm, but it comes as the firm works to build out its Starlink constellation of satellites in low-Earth orbit. SpaceX plans to use up to 42,000 satellites to offer high-speed and low-latency internet access almost anywhere with a view of the sky.

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SpaceX buys Swarm: what is Swarm?

Swarm was founded in 2016. CNBC notes that in its last fundraising round in January 2019, it was valued at $85 million.

It offers low-cost internet connectivity for Internet of Things devices. Where SpaceX’s Starlink is focused on internet access for computers and smartphones, Swarm is more interested in industry sensors like buoys at sea, smart energy meters, and agriculture sensors. These are the sort of devices that need a reliable connection at a low price but maybe don’t need such high speeds or low latencies as those offered by Starlink.

Swarm has developed a tiny “SpaceBee” satellite, which measures just 11 cm (4.33 inches) by 11 cm by 2.8 cm (1.1 inches). That makes it a quarter the size of a standard CubeSat satellite, favored by students and researchers for small projects in space. These satellites weigh just 400 grams (0.88 pounds) each.

A Swarm SpaceBee satellite.Swarm

The satellites are designed to be cheap to launch. This, the firm claims, enables them to offer “the world’s lowest-cost two-way satellite communications network.”

The firm is developing a constellation of 150 “SpaceBee” satellites. At the time of writing, Swarm’s website tracks 121 satellites currently in orbit. SpaceX launched three SpaceBee satellites as part of its SSO-A rideshare mission in December 2018.

Swarm vs. Starlink: what to know

The two services are aimed at different audiences. Take, for example, the price packages on offer:

  • During the beta period, SpaceX charges $499 for the Starlink Kit to get connected, plus $99 per month for access. Users can expect around 200 megabits per second of speed, similar to the United States average connection.
  • Swarm’s data plan costs $5 per month. That includes 750 packets of data, each up to 192 bytes. That means each plan can use just over one megabit of data per month. Customers can stack up to four plans on a single device if more is needed.

Swarm’s offering is much cheaper — but it’s clearly not designed for demanding daily computer users.

SpaceX's Starlink Kit, used for accessing the network.SpaceX

Swarm: what does it mean for Starlink?

It’s unclear at this stage what SpaceX’s acquisition means for Starlink. In the firm’s FCC documents, SpaceX wrote that it will benefit from “access to the intellectual property and expertise developed by the Swarm team, as well as from adding this resourceful and effective team to SpaceX.”

Swarm, the filing claims, will benefit from “the better capitalization and access to resources available to SpaceX, as well as the synergies associated with acquisition by a provider of satellite design, manufacture, and launch services.”

Sam Korus, an analyst at Ark Invest, suggested on Twitter that Swarm “has an angle” by offering car connectivity. In response to an earnings call question about whether Starlink could work on cars, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk in 2018 replied that he’s “not thinking about it very much.”

Another benefit, as noted by CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz, is that it could enable SpaceX to acquire several FCC licenses in a short space of time. These licenses can take a while to acquire.

As SpaceX gears up to roll out Starlink further this year, the reasoning behind the Swarm acquisition could become clearer soon.

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