From forest fire detection to illegal logging protection and beehive detection, Sara Spangelo, Co-Founder of Swarm (a subsidiary of SpaceX), discusses what new use cases satellite IoT connectivity enables. Previously plagued by spotty connection, satellite connectivity provides a more stable worldwide option for IoT devices to stay connected. Sara discusses key points in the industry, such as the current landscape, the biggest values, and the future of satellite IoT connectivity.

About Sara

Sara Spangelo is a former co-founder and CEO of Swarm and current senior director of satellite engineering at SpaceX. Before founding Swarm, Sara worked on small satellites and autonomous aircraft at the University of Michigan. She was a lead systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) and Google X. Her expertise is modeling and optimizing satellite constellations to maximize impact and business opportunities. Sara holds a Ph.D. in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Michigan and, in 2017, was a Top 32 Canadian astronaut candidate.

Interested in connecting with Sara? Reach out on Linkedin!

About Swarm (a subsidiary of SpaceX)

Swarm’s mission is to connect people and devices from anywhere in the world, at all times, at the lowest cost. Swarm Technologies is based in the US and has about 40 employees today. The company currently has over 160 satellites in LEO, providing 100% global coverage. Swarm has full regulatory approval from the FCC to operate commercially in the US and is also commercially approved in 15+ countries worldwide. Swarm intends to continue launching satellites over time as necessary to maintain and expand its satellite network. Swarm’s satellites are a 1/4U in size and have a mass of 400 grams with an average lifetime of 4 years. Swarm’s uniquely small satellites enable the company to provide network services and user hardware at the industry’s lowest costs while delivering maximum value to customers across various industries. These industries include agriculture, energy, environmental monitoring, maritime shipping, and ground transportation, providing the highest value for low bandwidth IoT use cases such as asset tracking and sensor monitoring. Swarm Technologies offers a hardware product called the M138 Modem, a satellite modem that can be integrated into user devices. SweetSense is an example of a client implementing Swarm connectivity for its water monitoring devices. With Swarm, SweetSense has been able to save 5x versus what they were previously paying for a legacy satellite solution. The Swarm M138 Modem is currently on sale for US $59-89 until November 30, 2022, and the data plan costs US $5 per month. The data plan provides users with up to 750 packets/month with a maximum packet size of 192 bytes. Swarm just launched the Swarm [Asset Tracker], which offers an end-to-end solution for tracking equipment, vehicles, and other remote assets. The Swarm Asset Tracker functions worldwide using Swarm’s global satellite network and is ideally suited for remote locations that lack terrestrial network coverage.

Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:

(2:12) Introduction to Sara and Swarm

(3:13) Swarm’s mission

(6:20) Satellite IoT landscape

(8:07) Biggest values of low-cost data services

(10:26) Use cases to benefit the most

(13:34) Future of IoT connectivity

(15:54) Challenges in satellite IoT

(19:36) Exciting things from Swarm


– [Sara] When you look at what SpaceX is doing in Starlink, specifically with a direct-to-cell program, we’re planning to connect unmodified handsets. So every cellphone that people have in their phone will actually just connect to space. And it turns out connecting to an IoT device is even easier than that because you typically have 10 again, that’s better and maybe more power. And it’s actually outside, not in a car and all of those challenges. So I think that is kind of this natural evolution where we’re going to see connecting to even smaller, lower power, lower cost, maybe even COTS IoT or cell IoT devices that are already deployed, we’ll be able to connect to those satellites.

– [Ryan] Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast, the number one publication and resource for the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Ryan Chacon. If you’re watching on YouTube, we truly appreciate it if you’ll give this video a thumbs up and subscribe to our channel if you have not done so already. If you’re listening to us on a podcast directory, please feel free to subscribe to get the latest episodes as soon as they are out and it helps other people find it, which is fantastic for all of us. All right, on today’s episode we have Sara Spangelo, the former Co-Founder of Swarm and currently the senior director of satellite engineering at SpaceX. Swarm is a subsidiary of SpaceX. Their mission when they started was to connect people and devices from anywhere in the world at all times and at a low cost. And they are a super fascinating story and company. So we talk a lot about that at the beginning where we jump in, talk about the founding story of Swarm. We talk about the satellite IoT and connectivity landscape, the value of low cost, ubiquitous satellite, data services to enable a whole new range of IoT applications in a wide range of industries, which industries those are, what use cases are kind of leading the way, the future of this space. Sara is a fantastic guest with a very impressive background. I think you’ll all get a lot of value outta this episode and really hope you enjoy it. But before we get into it, if you out there are looking to enter the fast growing and profitable IoT market but don’t know where to start, check out our sponsor Leverege, Leverege’s IoT solutions development platform provides everything you need to create turnkey IoT products that you can white label and resell under your own brand. To learn more, go to That’s And without further ado, please enjoy this episode of the IoT For All Podcast. Welcome Sara to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.

– [Sara] Thanks for having me.

– [Ryan] Yeah, it’s great to have you. Why don’t you kick it off by giving a quick introduction about yourself to our audience.

– [Sara] Okay, sounds great. My name is Sara Spangelo, and I’m a previous aerospace and mechanical engineer. And about six years ago I started a company with my co-founder, Swarm Technologies. And we launched really tiny satellite, literally this big. Into space we’ve put up over 160 tiny satellites solving for IoT connectivity. And we grew that company for about five years, and then we were acquired by SpaceX. About this time last year and since that time we’ve been continuing to grow Swarm at a very exciting rate and then also supporting other programs within Starlink, specifically the direct-to-cell program. My co-founder and myself are the two co-leads of that program right now. And we’re now a part of that SpaceX family and continuing to support all sorts of activities at SpaceX and ultimately our mission there.

– [Ryan] Fantastic. So when you started Swarm, what was that experience like? And I guess what I’m really asking is what was the opportunity you saw in the space and what prompted the development of this company?

– [Sara] Yeah, great question. So my co-founder and myself had seen lots of opportunities where there was kind of a not an available low-cost IoT solution from space in different use cases. So I’d worked at JPL where there were a lot of scientists that wanted to put sensors, different places on the planet, whether it was the middle of the ocean, the North Pole, earthquakes, volcanoes, things like that. And there was just nothing that was really accessible and low cost ways of bringing data back from those locations. Similarly, my co-founder had a high-altitude balloon company, so he was trying to fly balloons around the world and bring back valuable data about sensing or imagery in different applications. So we both realized, okay, there’s a huge gap here in low-cost IoT connectivity solutions from space. And then we both came from the CubeSat World. So I’d worked on small stats as part of my PhD, and that was becoming very popular in the 2000 tens. Companies like Planet Lab were coming along doing imaging with small stats, and we were wondering, “Hmm, if we could do something with small stats, but even at a smaller size.” Like maybe one eighth or one 16th or one quarter, the conventional size, the economics could be even more favorable and we could launch many satellites, maybe tens of satellites for the cost of earlier launching one satellite. So our initial design was literally just a PCB, one board, kind of like what’s in a phone of a satellite. And there’s no reason that couldn’t be a satellite, we came up with a clever scheme for stabilizing it, and we had power and data and comms and antennas and all the things you need. And it was a hobby, and we had been mentioning it to our flight instructor. We’re both pilots and fly small planes. And she was encouraging us that, “Oh, this could be a company you should chat with VCs.” Venture Capitalists in the Bay Area, which there’s many… Meeting some intros. And we were lucky enough that Social Capital was interested in investing in us to the tune of about $3 million right off the bat. And that was early 2017. And we decided to leave our jobs, I was at Google, he was at Apple. And really started this company and the rest is history.

– [Ryan] That’s fantastic. Awesome story. Yeah, that’s very cool. Anytime you believe in not only yourself in the work that you do, but just the technology and the vision you have and able to take that risk, especially from what I imagine is a pretty good job at some very prominent companies, it’s an awesome story to hear about. So congrats on all the success so far, and it seems like there’s a lot of exciting things to come.

– [Sara] Yeah, absolutely. I’m not sure we totally believed in ourselves, but it was kind of like, “Oh, you don’t do it now, you’ll never do it.” and we figured stuff out.

– [Ryan] Totally get it. Well, that’s awesome. So let me ask you this then, from your perspective, tell me a little bit about how you see the current landscape of satellite IoT and satellite connectivity in the industry. Kind of where things are now, how should people be thinking about it?

– [Sara] Yeah, I mean I think we’ve seen incredible innovation over the past five or 10 years with companies like Swarm, but there are others out there doing similar adjacent things where because the form factor of the satellites have been getting smaller and the capabilities have remained about the same or increased, the launch economics and the company economics have been extremely favorable where we can pass a lot of those cost savings down to the user. So instead of paying $100 a month, you can now pay $5 a month and get a pretty similar type of service. And there’s also been a lot of innovation just generally in the space with like our cell phones and other battery technology, power technology, radio technologies. And the space component has been able to leverage a lot of that, which has been amazing and I think we’ll continue. I think we’ll continue to see lower costs and higher data rates, lower power needs, smaller antenna form factors. And I see a natural transition from what we’re doing with Swarm. On the VHF side, there’s other companies doing it, maybe UHF or SSL Band into what we’re doing on the direct-to-cell side. Which we’re ultimately connecting to unmodified handsets that have very poor antennas, very low power and there’s a lot of synergies there with what you can do in the IoT space. In fact, connecting to an IoT device will be easier than connecting to a handset. So I see that natural evolution of maybe we’re able to bring the price down another five or 10X and be able to continue connecting devices. So I think the future’s very exciting on that front.

– [Ryan] Yeah, it’s been a hot topic recently. I mean, just so many companies, or I guess so many people I’ve been speaking with have been just very excited to see the developments of the satellite IoT space just from the capabilities that it potentially can provide for the industry. I mean, being able to provide low-cost connectivity and such could be a very big game changer, especially for a lot of use cases that have struggled with the current connectivity offerings in the market. So let me ask, how do you see or what do you see as the biggest values of low cost, ubiquitous satellite data services for the industry as a whole? I mean, I know at least on one side, it’s gonna enable a whole new range of applications. But just from your perspective, what do you see as the biggest values of that?

– [Sara] Yeah, I mean, I think very similar to what you hit on there. We see at least for Swarm there’s two types of customers there’s the customers that were previously paying iridium or… These really high fees because frankly, they had oil and gas that was so valuable that they were willing to pay $100 a month to monitor it. And they’re switching over to Swarm because of the cost savings and the use case is still satisfied with what we can provide. That’s the obvious customer switch. We’re also seeing people that could previously never afford satellite, which is what you were hinting at that can afford it for the first time. So they’re coming over from just terrestrial systems, maybe they were using LTE or LoRa solutions or Sigfox or Zigbee, one of those types of solutions. And for the first time they can afford satellites, they’re coming over. And I think that’s the more exciting shift because that’s allowing them to expand their businesses beyond where those other technologies can reach, which is typically tens or hundreds of kilometers to literally the whole globe. And I think that companies are now able to monitor things even if they’re out in the middle of the ocean, which was previously completely unreachable. A farm field that’s very far away, certain countries have very poor with cell connectivity.

– [Ryan] Yeah, absolutely. And we’ve been seeing a lot of talk about how to work with existing connectivity options like cellular, LPWAN solutions, things like that to increase coverage for certain use cases, certain areas of the world, things like that, which is very interesting. What industries and what use cases do you think are going to not only benefit from the satellite connectivity the most but also lead the way as this continues to become more of a prominent connectivity type for the industry?

– [Sara] Yeah, so we see a lot of use cases in the environmental monitoring space and really expanding with Swarm’s offering. And this is near and dear to people’s hearts because we have horrible forest fires here in California and around the globe. So we have one company, Dryad, that’s doing forest fire detection, which I think is really exciting and they’re able to put sensors out in remote locations, detect fires earlier on and send resources to stop those fires before they spread. And that’s actually a huge impact to climate as well. And then other exciting ones, one company we work with called Rainforest Connection is monitoring rainforest for illegal logging. So it has a pretty simple acoustic sensor and it can help stop illegal logging. So those are probably the feel good use cases, but I think also have the potential to be really impactful. We also see quite a lot in the energy space. So whether that’s oil and gas to a certain extent, but also solar, wind, I think we’re gonna see more hydro with Starlink type solutions come online. And that can be great because we can make sure that those power generation plants and technologies are being really well utilized, and very efficient, and we’re not having to send somebody out in a truck for a four-hour journey to go do something. There’s a lot of exciting other ones, beehive detection. This is a big one. A lot in the agriculture space as well. I really think the sky’s the limit in terms of these use cases and yeah, excited to be chatting with you and hopefully some of the people listening can think of how this is applicable to their use cases as well.

– [Ryan] Absolutely. I mean, I think there’s, like you said, the sky is really the limit when it comes to this connectivity technology in the space. And just we’ve had a lot of different connectivity technologies that have existed for a while, that have grown, that have matured and provided a ton of value to the industry. And I think the more connectivity types that are available, the more opportunity the industry has to really see successful deployments launched and utilized by more people. And I think that as a whole, at least how I view it, is one of the biggest contributors to the overall success of the industry long-term is seeing more successful deployments. And a lot of the issues companies run into is around connectivity in rural areas or just situations where connectivity isn’t as strong and they go in and outta connectivity so they lose value like in supply chain and other types of asset tracking applications. So it’s a super fascinating space to pay attention to. And it really, I think, is driving the viability of a lot of the use cases that we have talked about for many years, but maybe have not necessarily been as highly adopted because of lack of a mature enough of a connectivity option to make it worth the ROI for a company.

– [Sara] Yep, absolutely. Yeah, absolutely correct.

– [Ryan] So from your perspective, what do you see the future looking like? Where do we go from where we are now? I know we’re still in the kind of… I don’t wanna say too early days, but we’re still in the early days when it comes to satellite connectivity being utilized in the IoT space. But just from your perspective, the company’s perspective, a lot of things that you’ve probably seen on your own side, what does the future of of this space look like? Not just IoT, but also the connectivity space, the satellite IoT side. Just what is it that you think we should really be paying attention to or getting excited about?

– [Sara] Yeah, I mean I think over the past maybe five or 10 years we’ve seen a pretty dramatic evolution in the types of connectivity but also imaging and SAR and other things we can do from space. And then also the IoT solutions have been getting basically cheaper, smaller, lower power, easier to integrate and deploy. And then obviously achieving this global coverage with the satellite solutions. So I think we’re gonna continue to see an evolution that trend. I think when you look at what’s basics is doing in Starlink, specifically with a direct-to-cell program, we’re planning to connect unmodified handsets. So every cell phone that people have in their phone will actually just connect to space. And it turns out connecting to an IoT device is even easier than that because you typically have 10 again that’s better and maybe more power. And it’s actually outside, not in a car, and all of those challenges. So I think that is kind of this natural evolution where we’re going to see connecting to even smaller, lower power, lower cost, maybe even COTS IoT or cell IoT devices that are already deployed, we’ll be able to connect to those satellites. And because those satellites are very efficient, they’re doing broadband and direct-to-cell, they’re serving huge markets, they’re very large, they’re very capable, the cost can come down even more. So I think we’re just gonna see a natural evolution. And I think in 20 years, you know how we go in and outta of selling wifi and don’t really think much about it, I think that as devices move in and outta cell, and satellite and wifi, they’re not gonna think much about it. And hopefully it’s very seamless. And we take connectivity for granted. I think that’s gonna be the future.

– [Ryan] Yeah, I think you’re right. I think we’ll be thinking about it in a different way just as we’ve seen it with other connectivity types for sure over the years, so. But it’s very exciting space to pay attention to. What are some of the challenges you see with this space? We talked about the antenna piece a second ago, IoT devices versus the handhelds and such. But just generally speaking, what are some of the bigger challenges you’ve seen when it comes to satellite IoT maybe? Whether it’s the deployments adoption, integration, what are some of the things that really stand out to you that you’ve noticed that it’s worth our audience understanding that there are still challenges out there and here’s where they really rely. Is it more around hardware? What do you think on that front?

– [Sara] Yeah, I think whenever someone is considering a switch that’s usually pretty painful because it’s engineering and business resources to go and evaluate if that switch is gonna be worth it’s ROI. So that’s one aspect. If they’re very happily using cell and thinking of switching over to satellite, that’s a pretty big consideration, especially for a small company. And then along those lines, physically integrating our modem into their solutions can also be engineering effort. We try to make that really seamless. And we’ve seen people do it in weeks, but more likely it takes months to get that peacefully integrated because they’re basically taking our modem and integrating it into a third party device, replacing iridium or our cell chip that they had previously. One way we’ve tried to overcome this, you mentioned asset tracking earlier, we actually just released a standalone asset tracker, which just works outta the box. So literally outta the box, stick it to the side of a vehicle or a crane or a van, or anything really, trailer, whatever you wanna track. And you can track that for $5 a month and that’s $99. So that’s extremely competitive in this space. And I think a trend towards integrated solutions that are affordable, easy to integrate, easy to set up, will help alleviate some of that friction that we’ve been seeing.

– [Ryan] Yeah, definitely. That device sounds great. Where are you seeing it used the most right now?

– [Sara] I mean, largely in logistics space, no surprise there. Some in the construction and energy space. So it turns out there’s a lot of bobcats and cranes and trailers that just sit for big portions of the year and then people forget where they were. And then people wanna move them and making sure that we know where they are for insurance purposes or safety. But that’s a new product. So honestly, we’re still really exploring that space and excited to see what people will use it for.

– [Ryan] Yeah, I’ll say anything on logistics asset tracking that you can develop that makes it more cost effective and easier to adopt for different types of asset. Obviously, I know there’s limitations depending on the type of asset, where it’s going, what it’s doing, what data’s needed, but even at a fundamental level, there’s a lot of demand in that space for a lot of things. And then when you get into… I know it’s tough ’cause indoor and satellites, but indoor tracking is a big one. But yeah, I’m very excited to see what you all are able to develop and continue to launch around logistics and asset tracking space just ’cause it’s one of the areas that I think adoption has jumped up so much because it’s a way people really understand what it is and it’s an easier problem for them to attach to and look to solve as some of the other use cases that I’ve seen in other industries take a little bit more understanding as to how it’s going to work, what it’s going to do, rather than just saying, “Yes, we can tell you where your assets are, we can track what they’re doing, we can pull X data off of it and give you reports so you see it and manage it from there.” I think it’s a great space to be in, and I’m very excited to see how it continues to grow. So last thing I wanna do before I let you go here is… I know we talked about the future of the space and so forth, but just from your perspective and what you have going on at Swarm, SpaceX and so forth, what are some of the things that our audience should be on the lookout for? New and exciting things that will be coming out that we should just be paying attention to.

– [Sara] Yeah, I mean, I think Starlink is super fascinating. We’re releasing new products all the time. You’ll see some aviation products coming out this week for aircraft. But there’s a lot of other things you can do with Starlink both on the consumer side, the RV product, but you can also use that at cabins and things like that. But you’re gonna see more around what we can do in the energy space and many other verticals. So stay tuned, that website gets updated and it’s pretty exciting. There’s also usually news articles because anything Elon SpaceX gets in the news pretty easily.

– [Ryan] Oh, it does, yeah.

– [Sara] That’s a good way to see it. I think on the Swarm side, obviously we have our asset tracking product. Along with that, we do have a UI where you can actually see the movement and tracking of vehicles and we’ll have some additional enterprise software solutions which are really useful for companies that have to aggregate tons of data and make sense of it all. And then I think the next exciting thing, at least from my perspective, is the direct-to-cell program. We’re hopefully gonna be flying our first satellites around summer fall of next year and offering services probably late 2023 or early 2024 in data. Obviously, partnering with T-Mobile in the US and many other telcos around the globe. And I think that that will be really exciting for the consumer markets. Obviously, connecting to handsets and doing texting to start voice and data later on, but also the IoT space like I described. And that’s coming up pretty soon. So we’re really excited for what we’re gonna be able to achieve with all of those programs.

– [Ryan] That’s awesome. Yeah, very exciting. Thank you so much for taking the time. This has been one of my favorite conversations of recent The more conversations I can have around the satellite IT space, the better it is. And your story is super fascinating and a lot of very exciting things have happened, and I feel like continue to will happen with all the things you have going on, not just with Swarm, but also on the SpaceX side. So really appreciate you taking time outta your day to chat with me and our audience. And hopefully, we’ll find an opportunity to have you back and talk further.

– [Sara] Sounds great. Thanks Ryan. Have a great day.

– [Ryan] You too. All right everyone, thanks again for watching that episode of the IoT For All Podcast. If you enjoyed the episode, please click the thumbs up button, subscribe to our channel, and be sure to hit the bell notifications so you get the latest episodes as soon as they become available. Other than that, thanks again for watching and we’ll see you next time.

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IoT For All
IoT For All is creating resources to enable companies of all sizes to leverage IoT. From technical deep-dives, to IoT ecosystem overviews, to evergreen resources, IoT For All is the best place to keep up with what's going on in IoT.
IoT For All is creating resources to enable companies of all sizes to leverage IoT. From technical deep-dives, to IoT ecosystem overviews, to evergreen resources, IoT For All is the best place to keep up with what's going on in IoT.