FCC Fines Drone FPV Maker for Using Radio Spectrum

If you listen to the radio bands in the United States, you might wonder if anyone at the FCC is paying attention, or if they are too busy selling spectrum and regulating the Internet. Apparently however, they are watching some things. The commission just levied a $180,000 fine on a company in Florida for selling audio/visual transmitters that use the ham bands as well as other frequencies.

The FCC charged that Lumenier Holdco LLC (formerly known as FPV Manuals LLC) was marketing uncertified transmitters some of which exceeded the 1-W power limit for ham transmitters used on model craft.

Equipment that is purely for ham use is normally exempt from certification, but since the equipment was able to operate on other frequencies, this was a violation. In addition, even for licensed ham use, some of the transmitters were using too much power.

The company stopped selling the units in question after an FCC inquiry back in April. We can’t help but think that in years past building a consumer product with a significant radio transmitter was a big task, and someone would bring up the FCC rules and certifications before much progress had been made. These days though you can easily acquire building block ICs and modules to field a product in a few weeks that would have taken a sophisticated team years of effort not long ago.

We don’t know if that’s what happened to FPV Manuals, but it would be easy to imagine a hacker with an idea and a Kickstarter winding up with a big FCC (or other regulatory) fine. This is an even worse situation now that it is easy to find customers all over the world who are all subject to different laws and regulations.

We covered this story back in January when the ARRL were lobbying about it, so it’s good to see an outcome for them. We’ve talked a bit about what it takes to get products through certifications. Of course, that’s just part of the puzzle of scaling up to production.

34 thoughts on “FCC Fines Drone FPV Maker for Using Radio Spectrum

  1. One important point here is that the transmitters were built for ham bands but were marketed to non-hams. ARRL also says that the transmitters used frequencies intended for navigational aids, air traffic control radar, air route surveillance radars, and global positioning systems.

    The FCC doesn’t issue that sort of fine for an accident, but for a total disregard of radio regulations. If you’re building a crowdfunded project, you should make sure that what you’re promising to do is legal. There will be lots of people who point it out if what you promise isn’t legal.

    There is one crowdfunded project I know of that started out clueless about compliance. Meet Earl (back-country tablet and radio transceiver) got this wrong when they promised a transceiver that worked on multiple radio services (Amateur, FRS, GMRS, maybe something else), and realized they could not do that later well before they had anything to deliver, but they failed to produce the hardware and wasted everyone’s money anyway. I remember being one of the people telling them at the start that they could not do this, only to receive a snotty and clueless answer “We know building this is hard”.

    1. Agreed,

      FCC has a legacy of being a bit of a spooky boogyman in the RF spectrum. I remember stories of the FCC knocking down doors and stealing your first born. Perhaps at one point this was a close to life representation, I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t around.

      However, nowadays they are pretty reasonable. I’ve worked at plenty of places that have made utter garbage that sprayed stuff all over the spectrum, and didn’t run into much trouble. I’ve made a lot of mistakes my self, and got plenty of “don’t do that”s. I’ve never gotten a fine though, nor has anyone I’ve worked with to my knowledge.

      You’ve gotta be being a pretty big butthole to get a fine like this. To my knowledge, these sorts of fines come with plenty of warning.

  2. Saw that one coming a mile way.
    Unfortunately it wont be the last.

    It is almost impossible to make a transmitting product affordable when it has to be built specifically for a certain countries laws, every product would need dozens of variants for all the different frequencies and power levels.

    So they just produce products that are mostly cover-all and most times they cant software lock them to conform to the local requirements.

    I’m in the planning stages of a long range UAV for private mapping and surveying, but I keep coming against the hurdles of my local laws in Australia, even though I can easily buy equipment that would breach these laws.

    1. Actually, it’s simple and cheap to flash a device for a particular nation’s radio regulations. In general, you have only frequency channels to program. If you have a higher power or more sophisticated device, you might be programming power levels and modes, but unless you’re implementing a full SDR you would probably only have a few modes, like wide or narrow FM.

      It’s more difficult if you want to program such a device and still have it be _open_. In the U.S. you can do this if you market your device as test equipment rather than an end-user transceiver, thus things like HackRF, USRP, and Red Pitaya are OK within U.S. laws. To make your device comply with FCC regs and still be marketable as an end-user transceiver, you need one non-open part which enforces the frequency bands, etc. while allowing the rest of the device to be as open as possible. Most of the VFO chips these days use a serial bus for control, so you need something that gets between the user and the VFO on the serial bus. A $1 microcontroller would be adequate.

    2. “It is almost impossible to make a transmitting product affordable when it has to be built specifically for a certain countries laws, every product would need dozens of variants for all the different frequencies and power levels.”

      Nonsense. It’s not very difficult to make a transmitting mass-marketed product that meets global requirements depending on either purely software or (minor) hardware jumper settings. The PROBLEM is VERY costly and time consuming (often months if not years) testing and licensing by Big Government to allow the product to be used in a particular country. This is typically called “Homologation”:

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homologation

  3. You have a transmitter that can operate on many frequencies.
    Depending on your license, and location, you may OR may not have permission to transmit on those frequencies.

    This sounds like a job for – software !
    To be specific, a Barred Frequency List (BFL) that can be edited by the owner depending on their location / license.
    Useful Extra: Low Power Frequency List that limits output power, as per the 1-W limit mentioned in the article.

    If the default BFL prevents transmission on Navaid, ATC, GPS etc. frequencies that would be helpful.

    1. True, but from what I understand the fine was for hardware which merely had a capability to broadcast on unapproved frequencies. How is the line drawn here–do the extra frequencies have to be easily enabled by a layman to qualify for a fine? Because surely most hardware can be made FCC non-compliant with some basic understanding in electronics.

  4. Meanwhile people are free to import transmitters from China which violate these stupid overly restrictive regulations that protect big corporations, thus ensuring that US businesses can’t compete.

    1. Well, that’s a job of customs to confiscate such stuff. And if you think this law is overly restrictive, try to think about it not only in terms of your own drone use but other users of the radio spectrum – such as airplane pilots, police, firebrigade, marine users, broadcasters, etc.

      If you make it a wild west, lots of those services won’t be able to operate – all it takes is one strong signal to wipe out communications in a wide area, in the case of short wave (old CB, for ex.) even world-wide, given the right conditions. What is more important – your feeling of entitlement to your entertainment or that someone gets help when needed?

      Do you think that these radios are legal to operate like this in China? You would likely get tracked down and arrested in no time, given how strict the communications laws are there. They make them and export them because customers wants them and it is not their problem what they do with it.

    2. Let’s move this discussion to a physical analogy.

      You can’t just build as high as you want wherever you want. You can only build on land you own and to the allotted height. This protects people from theft and from blocking flight paths. It also prevents people from building in public parks.

      Now this company decided to build radios that functioned on bands that were not allowed, and power levels that were not allowed… If someone built a building on your land you would expect the government to

      1. But you are allowed to buy 1000 tons or 10000 tons of cement for a skyscraper if you want. You are just not allowed to use it everywhere. :-) AFAIK it is also not illegal to own a HAM transceiver without a license, but it is illegal to operate it without.

    3. Talk to a pilot doing a zero-vis landing of a widebody jet if the radio laws protecting his Instrument Landing System are “overly restrictive”. He and his hundreds of passengers would disagree with you.

    4. It’s easy to have a knee-jerk response that regulation is bad for business. In this case, it’s the regulation that makes business possible. Obviously, bad things will happen if everyone just transmits on any frequency they want. Like airplanes not being able to land in the fog, and your phone not working even as well as it does today. It’s the regulation that reserves a space where unlicensed people can operate without putting others in danger or just violating their rights. And the regulation creates another space where licensed people can do somewhat more, because they are supposed to have the technical knowledge to operate without interfering with others or creating dangerous situations.

    1. I think you could either place that under Part 97 Section 217, since there is no reason for telemetry to be encrypted anyway. You just need to broadcast your call-sign in the telemetry messages.

    2. When would you actually need more than 1 watt for a line-of-sight communication? For safety reasons you’re supposed to always remain in visual contact with your aircraft, not just flying it by POV. Also, your power budget is pretty seriously limited, and you want most of it for keeping the craft in the air.

  5. It’s about damn time that the FCC starts cracking down on this. Certified transmitters are out there but are limited in power and frequency options. If you want to run high power, get your amateur licence and play by those rules, its as simple as that.

    The FPV community is under represented in the ham community. The more people that get licences and join/create clubs the better. By organizing, we can lobby to protect the spectrum allocated to amateur radio. There is lots of lobby groups out there trying to get more spectrum for cell phones and wifi. If the ham community doesn’t protect the spectrum it will be gone. It won’t be long before the 5.8ghz ISM band is as crowded and as noisy at the 2.4Ghz ISM band. So legal unlicensed 5.8Ghz FPV will become impossible in populated areas. The amateur parts of the bands are only barely protected. We are secondary users on these bands. We need to have the national clubs protect the spectrum allocations.

  6. To mention is that the issue was a single product working in the 1.08-1.26GHz Range with highly varying output power and not in the 2.4GHz oder 5.8GHz band everyone assumes at first sight.
    That should be in the article.

    1. Ok, that’s really a little crazy! At 1090MHz lies the air traffic radar transponder downlink frequency and the 23cm HAM band lying from 1,24 to 1,3 GHz is not even fully covered.

      1. You can protect your startup by not building a transmitter that operates on frequencies that you have no right to operate upon, or at power levels inappropriate for the operation. Determining what you can and can’t do is an evening’s reading for an engineer. In general, unless your start-up has the end purpose of making radios, you will purchase a module that is already constructed and is approved for the particular use.

        But let’s be serious here. Most of the people who are whining about regulation don’t have what it takes to build the radio. If they did, they’d understand the regulation.

  7. first rule of Making Radio Stuff for Hobbyists: Don’t make your stuff to d*ck over other hobbyists. FPV racing is kinda new. but it’s at the heart old school RC flying. We’ve spent decades trying to build goodwill with other users of the spectrum, as well as people near the flying fields. Bad enough when every jackhole could get a high speed combat wing and keep it in the air long enough to annoy neighbors and collide with other modellers-at least the radios were not crashing other services . guess we’ll have to police ourselves again to clean up any current and increasing bad mojo that comes from readily available, cheap, non compliant hardware in the hands of people who don’t really give a rip who they inconvenience because “we’re just having fun”. ugh. now get off mah lawn, it’s cold and there’s wolves after me! :P

  8. Huh. Wasn’t the FCC’s argument to dismantle net neutrality that the government should have a “light touch” and not regulate things? Well maybe they should eat their own words and stop policing frequency usage…

  9. IMHO It’s about time the FCC started enforcing the regulations.

    They have long turned a blind eye. Good companies design compliant gear and suffer the expense of engineering and testing, and schlockhouses import gear that isn’t even close to compliance and sell it for peanuts. And the consumer suffers without realizing it, in gear that has intermittent problems, or doesn’t work as well as it should, or the odd safety related problem where some wild transmitter interferes with public safety radio.

    I had the amusing experience once being at the Dayton Hamvention, watching some guy with a van full of illegal CB gear trying to sell it to a guy in a suit. He explained how the “FCC don’t give a shit”. I was amused because the guy in the suit was Riley Hollingsworth, who at the time was in charge of enforcement for the FCC. That didn’t end well.

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