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How Satellites the Size of a Grilled Cheese Sandwich Could Change the World

January 24, 2019, 11:27 PM UTC
Swarm technologies is building tiny satellites
Swarm Technologies co-founders Sara Spangelo and Ben Longmier are trying to build a low cost space Internet service. Courtesy of Swarm Technologies
Courtesy of Swarm Technologies

The next time one of us runs into Astro Teller, the head of Google’s famed “Moonshot factory,” as he skates by let’s agree to ask him about Sara Spangelo. She’s the aerospace engineer who runs a little startup called Swarm Technologies. And her big brainstorm, created with co-founder and Apple veteran Ben Longmier, is almost a literal moonshot at a much cheaper price.

People have been dreaming for decades about the best way to bring online the next couple of billion people who lack the resources and infrastructure of the wealthier few billion who are already online. Space satellites seem like an obvious answer but the mega-projects of the 1990s never got off the ground and more recent plans like Elon Musk’s Starlink would require thousands of satellites (about 12,000 in his particular case) thus requiring many, many successful rocket launches and costing billions of dollars. Musk and others, including Masayoshi Son’s OneWeb, think that the incredible decrease in launch costs due to commercialization plus the incredible miniaturization of satellites due to Moore’s Law will add up to an economically viable solution. Maybe.

Swarm’s ideas take those trends to the max. Spangelo and Longmier aren’t relying on so-called cube sats, which are about the size of a shoebox. Swarm’s satellites are even smaller, more the size of a grilled cheese sandwich. The genius part is they’ve invented a way (“patent pending”) to steer their craft without thrusters or jets, instead relying on various currents coursing through space like the earth’s magnetic field and the sun’s solar radiation. That’s why they can be so small and thin. When I talked to Spangelo she agreed with my lakeside metaphor that Swarm’s satellites sail about while typical satellites motor into position. At 1/12th the volume and mass of even rival small satellites, they cost about 1/12th as much to put into orbit. Now you’re talking about spending $25 million-ish dollars and 18 months to create a low-cost network providing at least some connectivity worldwide, perfect for texting or collecting data from the growing Internet of Things. Not coincidentally, Swarm just raised that amount in its Series A funding. The goal is “solving for affordable, global internet connectivity,” Spangelo says. David Sacks, the former COO of PayPal and CEO of Yammer and now a lead VC backing Swarm, adds that “the ability to connect any device easily and cheaply, anywhere in the world is transformational—it’s never existed before.”

Spangelo worked for a year at X under Teller (on the “Wing” drone project, officially) after a stint at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She says she pitched the idea behind Swarm, but X didn’t go for it.

Teller has explained that X’s role is to find projects that sound “sufficiently like science fiction” that they might not be possible and that would be “really audaciously positive” for the world if they could work. In a lot of ways, it seems like Swarm meets the test, though maybe the provision of only relatively slow connectivity instead of broadband (as Musk, Son, and others promise) was the breaking point. Still, thanks to a few enraptured VCs, we’re going to find out.