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Antarctica to the Azores

July 8, 2020

What it takes to deploy Swarm’s ground station network

While Swarm’s network of tiny satellites often gets the most attention, our network of ground stations is an equally critical component of our ability to connect remote areas across the globe. The process of designing and deploying ground stations, from building to approval to installation, requires advance planning, and perseverance when things don’t go as expected.

Ground stations are the link that connect satellite-transmitted data back to the Internet so customers can retrieve their data or send messages to devices. Those enormous satellite dishes you see in open fields are ground stations. Traditionally, they are complex, expensive to set up, and often require a third-party vendor to do the actual installation and maintenance.

But, as with everything else, Swarm does ground stations a little differently.

Like all components of the Swarm network, we design and build our ground station hardware in-house. The stations are incredibly robust, designed to survive every environmental condition on Earth, from the corroding effects of salty summer Pacific air to the 100 mph winds and -60℃ temperatures of an Antarctic winter. Despite their hardy construction, they are a fraction of the size of traditional ground stations, are much simpler to set up, and are designed to travel safely in checked luggage. Because of this, we are able to deploy the ground stations ourselves, saving us time and money, and enabling us to travel to some of the most remote regions in the world that will benefit from Swarm’s connectivity solutions in the future.

An image of Swarm ground stations in Washington State, USA.

Swarm ground stations (foreground) are a fraction of the size of traditional satellite dishes (background). Washington State, USA.
An image of a Swarm ground station in the Azores.
Swarm ground station in the Azores.

The locations where we install our ground stations are selected based on careful calculations, combined with the availability of commercial teleports (ground station sites) and where we can obtain contracts and regulatory approval. These locations are selected to maximize network capacity, minimize network latency, and speed up message delivery. The locations we choose are remote, and this sometimes requires we travel to the ends of the earth.

An image of Dr. Ben Longmier, Swarm CTO and co-founder, deploying a Swarm ground station at McMurdo Station in Antarctica.
Dr. Ben Longmier, Swarm CTO and co-founder, deploying a Swarm ground station at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Read Ben’s account of the unique experience here.

The journey to our installation sites can be quite intense. It often takes multiple days and modes of transportation to get there — planes, trains, and automobiles, to name just a few. Once we arrive, there are often few creature comforts to welcome us.

With so much to get done, both at the installation site and back home, we pack a lot into a short time. We spend anywhere from one to three days on-site. Combined with the time-zone changes, we are often working off minimal sleep and extreme jet lag, but the reward of installing critical Swarm infrastructure motivates us to power through and get the mission completed.

The ground stations take just two hours to install, if everything goes to plan. We bring enough adapters and brackets for any eventuality, but inevitably plans change, surprises happen, and mounting locations are not always the same in person as we had expected.

Fortunately, our team of installation engineers is highly experienced when it comes to remote field work. They adapt to the local environment and are wonderfully creative about solving any technical glitches that pop up. Back at Swarm headquarters, our network operations engineers keep a close eye on the installation process, remotely debugging and testing the connectivity in real-time as necessary.

The local teleport teams are an invaluable resource and a highlight of our trips. Everywhere we go, the local teams have welcomed us with open arms and gone out of their way to accommodate us. There is a unique “git ‘er done” attitude in these remote locales, which is a welcome approach when things don’t go according to plan (and perhaps a mindset we could all learn from).

John, Swarm’s Lead R&D Engineer and a core member of our installation team, says: “There is always a variety of personalities at the different ground station sites, with endless life stories. It’s reassuring to meet face-to-face with the people who will remotely maintain an integral part of our network, and to know our equipment is in capable hands.” Getting to meet so many friendly people who are supportive of our mission is certainly a special perk of the ground station installs.

We currently have ground stations up and running in Antarctica, 4 sites in the U.S., and the Azores. Swarm will deploy a total of 40 ground stations by the end of 2020. Once complete, this will be one of the largest satellite ground station networks ever constructed.

For the Swarm deployment team, every installation presents unexpected challenges to learn from and unforgettable memories to bring home. But more than anything, we are driven by the knowledge that each new ground station helps us provide faster, more reliable satellite connectivity, wherever in the world you are.