The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

38 thoughts on “The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

    1. That person is NOBODY!

      At those frequencies it’s all line of site communications. If you can’t see it. Why do you expect to be able to fly it. If it’s really that important a second person with a 1.2 Yagi should follow the drone. Otherwise you will invite another person with a Yagi to DOS the drone out of the air. You do not want to meet that guy, because he will be from the FAA and will give you a big fine to boot.

          1. In fairness, there are use cases where you don’t need line of sight and long range is permitted.

            Low altitude over private property, for example, or indoor urban racing.

    1. Come up with two separate cameras, and run feed back to generic vr headset with stereoscopic view, adjust until you are happy with the 3d view. You could always just use square TFT screens, that way both sides have the same circuit. I am abstracting this quite a bit.

      1. Not sure how I would do the video processing for the bi-convex lenses…

        I suppose that I could get the RF version and remove the antenna, then run the signal through some mini-coax to the receiver… Might have to attenuate the signal a bunch.

  1. Does this apply to the USA versions of the 1.2ghz video systems or the international ones with more channels available? The usa ones can only transmit on 1280mhz and 1258mhz. The intl ones can go on a few more channels then that.

    1. “Raises a stink” is not a negative judgement on the ARRL, who as you say and as the article I hope makes clear are expresseing a valid safety concern. It’s merely a figure of speech to express the level of fuss they’re trying to make to get these dodgy transmitters off the market.

      Is this a BrE versus AmE thing? Is “Raise a stink” negative to Americans? For me it’s just “Makes one hell of a fuss” which is as far as I can see exactly what the ARRL are quite rightly doing.

      1. I read “raises a stink” as more of a negative title for a positive article. Almost like the ARRL was trying to spoil someone’s fun. I fly drones, belong to the ARRL, and write software for navigation and communications radios for aircraft. I am sensitive to the topic and I suppose I could be kind of sensitive to wording. I cannot speak for all Americans but apparently I do take raises a stink as a negative phrase. Maybe not so much after this. Thank you for your comment on my comment.

  2. how about we stop acting like the “multirotor community” isn’t there own worst enemy. the vast majority of these people don’t know or even care about any law or rule that apply how or what they fly. for years i tried to be part of the voice of reason on sites like diy drones only to be shouted down by the people that freakout that they have to follow any kind of rules at all.

    1. Many people where i am located follow all the regulations, despite how forced they might be. I have my ham licence, use 5.8Ghz (under 250mw) for video and 2.4Ghz for control. While i’m sure that most don’t go to this level, I have chosen to follow the law rather than be levied with a fine, my club is the same way.

      1. and for everyone one of you there are ten others that have never set foot in a club or even read the user manual. they saw a neat video and thought it look fun or that they could make a buck so they bought stuff online and just want to do what ever they want.

  3. It’s not the multi rotor community that is the biggest user of 1.2GHz systems. Rather it is the long range fixed wing community. Multi rotor are most commonly equipped with 5.8GHz FPV systems. This is for two reasons:
    – Affixing circularly polarised 1.2GHz antennas to a multirotor is a challenging task due to the large size of the antenna (the size also makes the antenna more likely to break in a crash).
    – 1.2Ghz transmitter and receiver hardware is bulkier and heavier than for 5.8ghz.
    – The range of 1.2GHz is overkill considering the short flight times of multirotors

    So to say or even repeat the claim that multirotor enthusiasts are the main uses of 1.2Ghz FPV is misleading. You should probably correct this.

  4. Someone will always try to make a buck. In this case (like so many others) it is manufacturers and resellers of Chinese junk electronics. The manufacturers are either not aware of or do not care about regulations regarding the products that are brought in. You see the same thing with cheap radios (looking at you Baofeng / Woxun), knock off power bricks, cables, other electronics.

    Valid business model:
    Find something you can make a profit on.
    Throw a UL / CE logo on it.
    Ship it.
    Consequences be damned.

  5. I think a more appropriate title would be “Just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean it’s legal.” Were it not for the ARRL, radio would pretty much be a “government and big business only” domain.

    A major part of the mission of the ARRL is to protect the rights of amateur radio operators from business interests which would otherwise pay lobbyists to persuade the government to assign amateur frequencies to them. Not all amateur radio operation requires a license. But the bands and power levels which require a license do so for valid reasons.

    As for Joe Jerk who insists on doing whatever He wants, well we have procedures for dealing with that implemented by the FAA and the FCC.

    The article is OK, but the title is *really* bad. I rather suspect that a significant proportion of these transmitters are being used to spy on people, not fly UAVs. “Good evening, m’am. The previous occupant reported an intermittent problem with the bedside lamp when they checked out. Hotel management asked me to bring you a replacement. It will just take me a moment to exchange them.”

    Disclaimer: I am not currently a licensed ham, but am an ARRL member. I also take QEX.

  6. Dirt cheap radio transmitters are a problem in general, injecting all sorts of harmonics all over the spectrum and drifting in to adjacent bands putting people (and the bands) at risk
    basically, unless you have a spectrum analyzer that can cover the band of the transmitter you want to skimp on to verify its within law, dont skimp on a transmitter and make sure its FCC certified

  7. The thing about hams is that they haven’t done anything creative in decades, all they do is jabber on their radios and complain about anyone who is actually creative and doesn’t follow their rules to the letter.

  8. Why is their amateur radio use minimal? It could be used as a cheap analog ATV transmitter on 1280MHz, although this isn’t done as much any more on 1.2GHz it is still legal. In many countries you are allowed to have a transmitter that can transmit outside of the HAM bands but obviously not use it on these channels. It seems like one of the transmitters they tested has no channels overlapping the HAM band so then it is indeed not useful at all (claims 1.28GHz, transmits on 1.22GHz).

    I wonder if these other channels are legal in some country (defense applications?)? Otherwise, why did they make it?

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