It’s almost gone a year after satellite Internet-of-Things connectivity provider Swarm was acquired by SpaceX, and Swarm co-founder and CEO Sara Spangelo (now senior director of Satellite Engineering at SpaceX) is ready to talk about what Swarm has been up to during that time. SpaceX is not known as a super buying company, so I was curious what it was like for Spangelo and for Swarm. Usually it’s been 10 months of rapid acceleration, she says.
One of Swarm’s biggest blocks in terms of speed of deployment and growth of its network has been the ability to actually launch its satellites, which are themselves small — the company says they are “the smallest operational satellites in space.” with slightly more than the size of your average sandwich. Spangelo said unlocking launch availability has been one of the biggest benefits of operating under the SpaceX umbrella so far.
“Accessing basically free launch is pretty exciting,” she told me in an interview. “We’ve probably launched three or four times since we last spoke [Editor’s note: in June 2021 for our Found podcast]and we now have over 160 satellites in LEO [low-Earth orbit] – some of them are experimental.”
Those experimental payloads have helped the company improve overall latency so that it can now guarantee latency of less than an hour (meaning a Swarm satellite goes above a certain point on Earth at least once an hour), bringing broad new customer categories and applications because of its low bandwidth, hyper-efficient connectivity services.
“That’s a pretty important threshold, if you’re doing any kind of monitoring, whether it’s flooding, water, wildfire detection, agricultural applications, logistics applications — that’s a pretty important threshold in that community,” Spangelo explained. “So be low” [latency]that has unlocked a lot of exciting new use cases and customers.”
Swarm’s tiny satellites have essentially piggybacked on SpaceX launches for other customers, where it’s easy for the company to “just set them up,” in Spangelo’s words. Satellite launch is usually an ounce game due to weight considerations, but the advantages of the smallest operational satellites in space mean you stand a better chance than most of fitting within the existing mission payload parameters for SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets, even with others. cargo on board.
While access to mainstream orbital delivery service is incredibly valuable for a technology like Swarm’s, Spangelo says it has also unlocked a host of other efficiencies that help the previously small startup leapfrog in terms of maturation and infrastructure.
“We’ve only had access to more support systems,” she said. “So legal, accounting, HR, recruitment, logistics, supply chain and production. That also helped us to increase a lot of our production speed, [and] our rent. We are scaling up and we will probably do 10x the number of devices sold this year compared to what we did last year.”
Of course it’s a two-way street (otherwise it wouldn’t make sense as a takeover) and Spangelo says SpaceX is already benefiting a lot.
“We’re also supporting SpaceX in a number of ways, from engineering and technology and regulatory strategies to lots of other programs that we’ll hopefully talk about in the future,” she said, reserving details about exactly what those programs might be for now. I suggested that some sort of marriage between Starlink’s consumer internet service and Swarm’s connected device offerings might make sense, and she agreed there are synergies they’re exploring there.
“We are definitely having product discussions about the gap that is Starlink broadband, to Swarm IoT and everything in between,” she said. “And the roadmap really fills a lot of the gaps between the things you’re alluding to. Certainly on the business side, we started with some of the same corporate clients. You can imagine that large agricultural companies, or oil and gas companies, or maritime companies need both broadband and satellite IoT. So we have certainly benefited from those mutual relationships in both directions: some Swarm customers are interested in Starlink and vice versa.”
With new use cases and new sales relationships, as well as high demand on both sides, Spangelo says that both Starlink and Swarm within SpaceX are still growing their teams despite the current macroeconomic conditions, especially when it comes to specific types of talent.
“A lot of people don’t know that Starlink is actually a kind of networking company,” she said. “We think about [SpaceX] as a hardware rocket company – a bunch of mechanical engineers. But the sophistication of the software, network algorithms, backends to the core networks and laser mesh networks, it’s incredibly complicated. So we have, I think, over 200 software engineers on Starlink, and about 500 at [SpaceX]. But we are definitely looking for incredible talent there.”
As for what Spangelo is excited about that Swarm has been able to do, and do better, by operating as a SpaceX company, she mentioned some new use cases that have come online since we last spoke, including wildfire detection. With a maximum latency of less than an hour, and often results that refresh in minutes, you can significantly change the approach to detection and mitigation of wildfires, which can spread for hours or even days without people knowing when they are left alone. controlled by traditional methods. Swarm works there with a number of companies, including in Berlin Dryad networks.
Another recent customer, Connection to the rainforestuses Swarm’s IoT network to connect simple acoustic sensors deployed in the Brazilian rainforest.
“Basically, they just have an acoustic sensor, like you have on your phone, and it basically just hears a chainsaw, and then calls out the people who [deforestation]she said. “That’s just so cool to me — that such a simple sensor can have such a big impact because it’s so hard to find these things.”
As for the future for Swarm, Spangelo says they’re actually pretty happy with where the satellite hardware and design is at the moment, though they’re looking for more software products for enterprise customers. There are also “some products that are more standalone and are actually more suited to use case tracking, and some of the larger business use cases” that don’t require the advanced integration of their current modem design, she said, something more “on brand with” Elon Musk’s “out of the box philosophy”; something she said has already impacted the product side.
Meanwhile, Swarm continues to operate from its Mountain View facility, a short distance from a nearby SpaceX office, making collaboration relatively easy. The Falcon 9 launch pads are a little further out, but you can’t beat the price for the ride.