Jacob Cohen  - SSP19 Chair
Jacob Cohen
Andrew Butler
Andrew Simon-Butler
Associate Chair


The participants of the Swarms Team Project will make a SWOT analysis of a highly promising, emerging space system based on the distributed functionalities of swarms.  A swarm of collaborating nano-satellites enables a whole new range of applications, such as exploring areas of planets and moons that are out of reach of today’s instruments and  advanced telecom functionalities. Swarms also enable the use of spin-in technologies, such as mass production advantages and Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technology.


Swarm-organized systems found in biology show remarkable benefits over centrally coordinated systems. Examples range from how ants work together to protect their queen, to how a flock of birds create the most breathtaking figures together without collisions. Applying this to a space based system provides a number of advantages. First of all, complexity can be divided over the elements of the swarm and therewith keep every element as simple and robust as possible. A swarm satellite is typically a nano-satellite that does not have the required resources for orbit and attitude control to strictly keep position with respect to other satellites in the swarm so it would not be capable of maintaining position in a constellation or a formation. This disadvantage can be turned into an advantage when the mission is designed such that it is not important where the swarm elements are. As such, the swarm satellites can be produced quite inexpensive and rely on COTS technology that make them suited for mass production. A large number of nano-satellites in a swarm make the swarm extremely robust and omnipresent. The revisit time of a swarm can be near instant. Swarms are very well suited for global earth observation, but can also form large scientific instruments of which the radio telescope OLFAR is the most exciting example. In essence, OLFAR is a large aperture radio telescope that can produce a detailed sky map at yet unseen frequencies that is with current space mission design thinking, beyond present means, both technically and financially. Yet another fascinating application that can be enabled with swarms is to form an Internet Of Things (IOT) backbone in Space. As such, in-situ sensors measuring environmental and/or geolocation parameters all over the world, can transmit their data whilst a swarm of small satellites collects this data and further manages how to deal with it. With the emergence of swarms, a totally new space system with features incomparable to traditional space systems is becoming available and the full use and benefits are still hardly discovered.

Main issues to be addressed:

  • What makes a satellite a swarm satellite? What advantage can be made of the fact that in a swarm the number of elements is basically unlimited?
  • What resources and systems does a swarm satellite need? How would the cooperation with terrestrial (or planetary) sensor swarms work?
  • What are new and emerging applications that swarms can be used for? How can the swarm concept be optimized for scientific goals such as: OLFAR, Planetary exploration and global climate change monitoring, or applications such as active debris removal?
  • What are the operational scenarios for swarms?
  • How can global data-collection tasks be commercialized with swarms?
  • The swarm satellite design needs to be completely based on COTS technology. What is the impact of this on business models in the Space business? Does the current foreseen trend for small satellite launchers lead to a profitable business for swarm based businesses?
  • What are the legal issues of swarms of very small satellites, for instance in terms of registration, authorization, responsibility and liability in case of damage? Which state should license these missions; do they pose more or less risk than larger satellites? And to whom? What insurance will be required and available for this kind of missions?
  • Where should swarms go? Which orbit? What about disposal after the useful lifetime of the satellites and compliance with national and international debris regulations and guidelines? How does the end-of-life mechanism of an individual satellite work?

Main tasks to be accomplished:

  1. Investigate the technical potential (performance) of swarms of satellites over centrally coordinated satellites (in a constellation)
  2. Identify a number of new applications that are enabled by swarms
  3. Identify the enabling technologies needed for swarms, to reach their full potential
  4. Investigate the commercial and institutional prospects of the new applications that are identified.
  5. Investigate the legal aspects of swarms and propose new policies vis a vis orbital debris mitigation