New Technology: FCC and FPV
Written by Lucas Weakley
As seen in the Spring 2016 issue of Park Pilot.
Many modelers and RC pilots are aware of the current guidelines from the FAA that are attempting to more-heavily regulate the hobby. Although that is ongoing, there are some already established regulations that many of us are not aware of.
The FCC (fcc.gov) has regulations for the radio frequencies that are most commonly used for radio control of our aircraft and other recreational hobby vehicles. I had really never heard of this. Let’s look into these requirements and see who is affected and how we can all still fly within legal and safety boundaries.
The FCC is an independent government organization overseen by Congress that regulates national communication channels in all 50 states and in the US territories. There are two sections in FCC regulations that apply to modelers and are described by license-exempt usage (Part 15 of the FCC “Radio Frequency Devices”) and Amateur Class radio license-required usage (Part 97 of the FCC “Amateur Radio Service”). These rules don’t just apply to control frequencies. They also govern the use of video frequencies and power outputs.
Many people who haven’t gone through amateur radio training wouldn’t know which category their radio systems would fall under, so it’s up to the manufacturer of your product to have the control system certified by the FCC. This certification is usually shown on a sticker somewhere on your radio equipment with an FCC identification code.
The FCC ID Device Search allows you to search the FCC ID code found on your product, as shown here, and check the certification parameters. Photo from the fccid.io website.
You can use this code to check the manufacturer’s certification and verify that you don’t need a license to operate your equipment. You can do this by going to the FCC ID Device Search (fccid.io) and entering the code that is on your device.
I was curious, so I decided to try this out with my gear. I got out all of my transmitters and radio modules and started looking for stickers. I have never really consciously looked for these before, but sure enough, I was able to find some. I have a Spektrum DX6i transmitter (spektrumrc.com), Turnigy 9XR transmitter (turnigy9xr.com), and an OrangeRx T6 transmitter from HobbyKing (hobbyking.com). All of my Spektrum gear and FrSky modules and receivers (frsky-rc.com) for the 9XR transmitter had the FCC identification numbers that I was able to look up and verify on the device search page.
On the backs of my gear are stickers that display the FCC ID code and other product information.
However, my OrangeRx gear, including the Open UHF (ultra-high frequency) module that I have, did not show any FCC ID numbers. The OrangeRx gear is popular because it piggybacks off of the same frequencies that Spektrum uses, so you can buy the company’s inexpensive receivers for your Spektrum transmitter. The receivers aren’t transmitting and use the frequency of the certified Spektrum radio.
Because my OrangeRx T6 transmitter does not have an FCC ID sticker, it is illegal to use in the US. This is most likely why these transmitters are currently not listed on the HobbyKing website for the US warehouse locations. Even having an Amateur Class radio license will not make their use legal in the US, because they are on 2.4 GHz and must be FCC certified. The FCC ID code and sticker are the keys.
There are no stickers or other forms of FCC identification on any of my OrangeRx transmitting gear, making the devices illegal to use in the US.
It is important to make sure your equipment has the FCC ID sticker if it is not purchased from a US vendor because equipment sold by US vendors is required to meet FCC laws. Some equipment is meant for sales outside the US and would be legal in other countries. Make sure before you make a purchase!
My OrangeRx UHF module operates on 433 MHz and is also not certified, but in this case, it is legal to use by an amateur radio licensee with a Technician Class rating or higher. It is up to the licensee to meet all required radiation power limits while in use, as set forth by the FCC.
This is also the case with my FPV gear, none of which is certified by the FCC. Companies such as Fat Shark (fatshark.com) and ImmersionRC (immersionrc.com) are starting to come out with low-power, FCC-certified transmitters on the 5.8 GHz band, but for most FPV equipment existing today, you do need an Amateur Class radio license to operate them legally.
Although most FPV transmitters require a Technician Class license to operate, this low-power Fat Shark video transmitter does not require a license. Photo used with permission from Fat Shark.
What goes into the license, and how hard is it to earn?
Amateur, or ham radio, licenses are managed by the ARRL (American Radio Relay League; arrl.org). With more than 161,000 members, it is the largest amateur radio organization in the world. With so many members, there are chapters of the organization across the country. By going to the organization’s website, you can find local members, license classes, examination times and dates, and other information needed to become an Amateur Class radio license holder.
There are three classes of amateur licenses: Technician, General, and Extra. For our purposes as RC aircraft and FPV pilots, the Technician License is sufficient for the frequencies we operate on. The 35-question exam tests for knowledge of the rules and regulations and best practices for amateur radio usage.
Although the ARRL does not state that this examination is easy, it does offer several online resources and local chapters that run classes to aid in the educational process and make the license accessible for as many people as possible.
With the license and the subsequent knowledge learned from earning it, you will be able to operate nearly every RC system. I do not have an Amateur Class radio license as of this writing, but I am working on one now. It’s a good thing to have so that I can fly FPV and UHF legally, no matter what the FAA decides to regulate.
If you have questions regarding these FCC requirements, contact AMA Headquarters at (765) 287-1256. Information can also be found on the AMA website in “Document 590 Federal Communications Commission Requirements for Model Aircraft Operations” (modelaircraft.org/files/590.pdf) and “System Licensing Guidance for FPV Flight” (modelaircraft.org/files/FPVFCC.pdf).