SpaceX, a company known for making big splashy announcements — thanks to its media & attention savvy founder — very quietly snapped up a small startup called Swarm Technologies. In case you were wondering, “why?” SpaceX made the acquisition, then let me help you out: it is all about devices — more accurately put, the connected devices that need some connectivity. Some of us who love nerdy things, this category: Internet of Things.

The connected devices, especially in the industrial arena, have been a slow starter, mostly because the incumbents are slow to change, hate to spend money, and frankly, have not quite understood the importance of data. I saw that when “the cloud” was still young. SpaceX is betting that with bigger brand recognition and deeper pockets, they will turn Swarm’s business into a big moneymaker.

Swarm makes tiny satellites, which are even smaller than microsats. Think about the size of a stack of iPad Minis. Their satellites operate in VHF, different from Starlink. Swarm’s idea was to deploy up to 150 of these satellites and help connect devices from boring old industries such as agriculture, logistics, and energy. If they can get data from that connectivity, they can get smarter about their operations.

Swarm’s Satellites

The idea helped Swarm get about $35 million in venture funding. It also helped that the founders had some solid tech-chops. The company was the brainchild of Dr. Sara Spangelo & Dr. Ben Longmier: Spangelo worked on small satellites and autonomous aircraft at the University of Michigan and was a lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Google X. Longmier sold his company to Apple. And that is why their technology was interesting enough for SpaceX to snap up the company.

Picosats are inexpensive to make and deploy, so Swarm can afford to sell its data service — it starts at $5 a month quite cheaply. To be clear, this is no Starlink network. You get a mere 750 data packets per device per month, and that’s up to 192 Bytes per packet. Of course, you need Swarm’s special modules and other gear, but thankfully they are cheaper than any other Satellite gear.

In case you were wondering — that’s not a lot of data (or revenue,) but sensor reading data demands go up fast, especially when sensors start to spread everywhere. And as someone who thinks that connected sensors are an inevitability, this seems that it could eventually become a big opportunity for a large company like SpaceX. After all, there are (and soon will be more) machines than people. (Hey, I already said, I am in the connected everything camp.)

And if that big opportunity doesn’t work out — aka the worst-case scenario, SpaceX, can use Swarm technology to monitor their own sprawling network around the globe. Plus, they got two kick-ass brains to work at the company. It’s not as if they broke the bank for Swarm.

August 10, 2021. San Francisco

A couple of days ago, I pointed out the risks we all have from companies that fall outside what is derisively known as “big tech.” Whether it is utilities playing god with the connected thermostats or insurance companies mucking around with your rates based on what your car sensors report back to them — the devils we don’t know are the most considerable risk in our new connected life. 

Last evening, the news broke about many My Book owners, a device made by storage giant Western Digital, seeing their data “remotely” wiped out. Western Digital, whose brands include Sandisk and G-Technology, offered a statement to Ars Technica that is a bit of a headscratcher. On Twitter, Lon Seidman pointed out that the WD product has been discontinued, and its firmware was last updated in 2015.  

I am sure more details on the WD incident will emerge shortly. However, it does reinforce my original point: we might hate the “big tech,” but in reality, they are likely to do more to help avoid such incidents. 

June 25, 2021, San Francisco