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

By Aaron Pressman

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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 CTO 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.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Winter winds. Speaking of all things spacey, it’s due to the creation of private companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX that the cost of launching satellites has plummeted. But SpaceX’s shiny new rocket designed for carrying humans suffered a setback on Wednesday, when high winds toppled a prototype version sitting on a pad in Boca Chica, Texas. Musk’s other venture, electric cars, was also buffeted. Shares of Tesla fell 4% on news the company was reducing production of its Model S and Model X vehicles.

Dust in the wind. And speaking of things not going well, Apple has removed more than 200 people this week from its still-secret autonomous car effort known as Project Titan, CNBC reports. Without exactly confirming the report, Apple said “some groups are being moved to projects in other parts of the company, where they will support machine learning and other initiatives.” Layoffs hit two online media sites, as well, with word that Buzzfeed is cutting 15% of its staff and Verizon Media is chopping 7%.

Against the wind. In the department of cord cutting, several developments. Comcast reported it lost 29,000 cable subscribers in the fourth quarter, down from 33,000 a year earlier. Google said its Internet cable replacement, YouTube TV, is now available nationwide. And Hulu raised the price of its cable package replacement, Hulu Live TV, by $5 to $45 a month, while cutting the price of its original ad-supported streaming service by $2 to $6 a month.

Wind beneath my wings. Bragging rights for the fastest wireless network at the end of 2018 went to T-Mobile–though just barely, according to data from OpenSignal. T-Mobile customers had an average download speed of 21.1 megabits per second, followed by Verizon at 20.9 Mbps. AT&T was third at 17.8 Mbps and Sprint trailed at 13.9 Mbps. The top two download speed results were close enough that OpenSignal said the difference was not statistically significant.

Wild is the wind. The great firewall of China got a little…tighter? taller? Insert your metaphor here. Microsoft’s Bing search engine appears to have been cut off from access by Chinese users starting on Thursday. Microsoft said it was seeking to “determine next steps.”

Blowin’ in the wind. Some 51 gigabytes of data encompassing 24 million consumer financial records related to loan applications were left openly accessible on a public server by Ascension Data and Analytics, security researcher security researcher Bob Diachenko discovered.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Patents on software have been highly controversial and the subject of several high-profile court cases. Patents on artificial intelligence inventions may be even murkier. Susan Decker, Bloomberg’s ace intellectual property reporter, looks at the issue in an analysis piece noting that 90% of A.I.-related patents applications have been initially rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. That’s upsetting to many lawyers in the field:

Michelle Holoubek, a patent lawyer with Sterne Kessler in Washington, said areas particularly affected include machine learning and bioinformatics, which uses data to find correlations between, for instance, the likelihood of getting a disease or discovering the best course of treatment. “For some of these very valuable patent applications, the examiners are coming back and saying, ‘Yes, but at the end of the day it’s just math,'” Holoubek said. “They say processing data by a computer is just what a computer is used for. It’s not just math-there’s a lot of processing-but they say ‘it’s just a computer doing what a computer does.'”

BEFORE YOU GO

The old master bathroom in my old house needs a makeover, both my wife and I agree. It’s budgeted for the post-kids-in-college years starting in about 2027. But, hopefully, by then the trends in bathrooms will have calmed down from some of the palatial re-dos examined in this crazy Atlas Obscura piece “The Rise of the Luxurious Suburban Master Bathroom.”

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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Posted on: January 24, 2019

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