FCC Fines Hobby King Almost $3 Million For Illegal Drone Transmitters

We take wireless devices for granted these days, and it is easy to forget that the use of the airwaves is subject to government control — the FCC in the United States. HobbyKing got a sharp reminder when the FCC levied a nearly $3 million fine for the company selling uncertified drone transmitters.

It was hardly a surprise, though. The FCC has been cracking down on these noncompliant transmitters for a while now and had issued a notice of apparent liability to the company back in 2018 and the investigation goes back to 2016. The problems included radios being sold that were on unauthorized frequencies, radios with higher than legal output power, and selling radios that were not type accepted.

Ham radio operators are allowed to buy and use radios that are not type accepted, presumably because they have the technical know-how to operate them without interference. But other types of radios do need type acceptance.

According to the FCC, “In its response to the NAL, HobbyKing did not contest that it marketed devices without equipment certifications or that it failed to respond fully to the Bureau. Instead, HobbyKing raised several unpersuasive legal challenges.”

The FCC has been after people making these transmitters, too. If you are thinking about making a transmitting device, maybe think about certification.

41 thoughts on “FCC Fines Hobby King Almost $3 Million For Illegal Drone Transmitters

  1. The rules and regs around transmitters needs to be re-evaluated for the IoT future. The necessity of FCC testing for even simplistic devices eliminates an entire class of useless gadgets we could be selling to the masses! A $3 million fine for a victimless crime on the presumption that unregulated transmitters would propagate like bunnies and THEN be actual problem.

    1. I think there is an abbreviated test process for devices where all the RF is done in “pre-certified” modules that is much cheaper, basically only to test for unintentional emissions. The odds of the FCC going to something like a full self-certification model are zero.

      1. In my experience, using a pre-certified BLE module takes the cost of testing from ~$25,000 to ~$10,000. You also can’t change the antenna, any tuning components, voltage regulator components, and the like from the exact component (value, tolerance, manufacturer, etc), as that with which the module was qualified.

        I think it’s still ridiculously expensive, and it could be drastically simplified with no real risk.

      2. Yeah, the unintentional emitter tests run $10,000 per attempt (someone who has more experience going through the process, feel free to correct me!). This is a barrier to entry for many young makers but also destroys a potential niche for cheap, low volume devices (say 100x of a $50 device). The regs as they are threaten markets like tindie and so likely keep them from expanding.

        1. Radio field test used to cost me $5-2K. UL was 10K back at the turn of the century. So I can see $10k for initial design. But we are talking real world so these service costs can be negotiated, especially if you are scheduling a follow on series of tests. All of these sites say that they do not do trouble-shooting or assist with trouble-shooting. But my experience has been that sometimes they can’t help themselves. I’ve spent many hours watching the equipment table go round and round and the antenna goes up and down. So initial design would cost me $5K and product changes were tested at $2K.
          Having dealt with the FCC and The FAA. I don’t believe the FCC would crack down this hard unless there are problems with freq. drift or over power. These cheap radios are probably poorly shielded and scream like a banshee.

          1. For my own part, I will say that a lot of the things on my store are test equipment, which are categorically exempt.

            Not everything, of course, but a lot.

    2. Well, on the other hand, there’s a wise German saying – “Wehret den Anfängen”.
      It can be translated to “resist the beginnings” or “nip in the bud”.
      Once something has started, it cannot be undone easily, if at all.

      That saying is often being referenced to in junction with democracy, having free opionion and freedom in general.
      While I agree that the fine is very high, I can understand the idea behind it.

      The frequency spectrum is no playfield.
      It “belongs” to humanity as a whole, not just egoistic capitalists or hobbyists.
      And as such, it has to be protected, just like the sea or the forests.

    3. I dont know if I would call it victimless.
      Transmitter interference is an even bigger deal nowadays. No one has a copper phone line and a noisy drone can take out all of the cell service in an area.

      A SINGLE bad transmitter can cause a lot of harmful interference.
      Plus, you are complaining about this “slippery slope” argument that the transmitters will propogate like bunnies, while mentioning that transmitters are going to be everywhere with IoT. So, if one company makes an IoT device that knocks out all Verizon cell phone signal for a radius, and then they sell that shit at Walmart, do you not think that will create an issue?

      1. Truthfully, I’m playing both sides here with my comment. We’re only going to have more radios in the future, so the rules on spectrum usage end up being really important. But at the same time, the framework we have now is severely outdated and arguably a framework built for crystal radios can’t be a great model for what we need in the coming years of the digital age.

    4. The RF spectrum is a shared resource, that become more crowed as time moves on. Wouldn’t we be a victim, when users of poor equipment, infer with our use of RF spectrum? Any presumptions being made by the FCC would be based on over a century worth of experience, and data. I suppose, one could say the fines levied ar excessive, but I suspect the actual penalties are much lower, when its all done..

  2. Excerpt from footnote 77.
    “The resulting calculation for the two failure to respond violations at $19,639 each results in a total forfeiture of $39,278. Thus, the overall forfeiture is $2,861,128 ($2,821,850 for equipment marketing violations + $39,278 for failure to respond violations”

    Apparently the problem is not just the violation of the transmitters, but also a failure to comply, which is, well, mainly Hobby Kings’ fault.
    I guess it is not wise to pretend the FCC is not there.

  3. Pardon my ignorance but what kind of transmitters are Hobby King selling? Ham radio transmitters, equipment to turn your drone into a repeater, control transmitters that boost drone operation range?

    1. Craft mounted video transmitters that operated in the 5.8GHz range, 2.4GHz range, and 900-1.3GHz range for flying FPV (First Person View). They also sell control transmitters in those same ranges, but those are typically lower power, fixed frequency, and often FCC Certified.

  4. I’m more OK with skirting the rules than most, but HobbyKing went even further than I’m willing to go with this one. Everyone now is pretty familiar with the 5.8GHz video transmitters that we use on quads for FPB, but at the time HobbyKing was being investigated (2016-2018), 2.4GHz and 900MHz-1.3GHz were still pretty popular. It was a time of discovery and technical advancements. One of the big issues was that HobbyKing was selling VTXs in that last frequency range that could transmit directly over air traffic control frequencies…

    Again, I’m perfectly OK with the system that we have landed on today, where tons of shops sell 5.8GHz equipment that *technically* requires a HAM license to operate but won’t transmit on “important” frequencies. But selling a thing that is 1 dip switch setting away from stomping on air traffic control with no license check? Nah, too sketchy for me.

    It has been over 2 years since the FCC made the decision to levy this fine, and a similar one against Luminer, so hopefully the current standard of putting “Must have a Ham license” on the sales website, and forcing the user to ‘unlock’ the VTX will keep the FCC happy.

    1. With the digital systems we might see more push against analog. Some of the analog transmitters are quite spread out in their transmissions, beyond the 6 or 8 mhz required for the video…

  5. As one who did FCC and VDE (Euro version of FCC) on computer equipment I appreciate the need to regulate RF emitters. Its not a victimless crime to pollute the spectrum. It is a space we share, as we do the road. In both cases there must be minimum floor set and enforced. It would be nice if we all played nice together, but we don’t. I’m a radio amateur too and know the sound of electric fences and dozens of other unintended emitters, its not pretty. Like the sky with Musk’s little satellites, you can go from pristine nature to over crowded, quickly. Nip it in the bud!

  6. IMHO this is nothing more than the fcc working with the faa to kill a hobby. Yes I’m cynical but also a realist. the govt right now is doing everything they can to make sure the hobby is killed so that amazon, fedex, ups, google, apple can have the skies and we get none of it.

    1. Except the various authorities have come a LONG way in the past ten years with respect to making drone and FPV flying legal. Prior to that they were extremely prejudiced against it in any and all forms, regardless of power or range or location.

      But the rules around radio spectrum have been clear and unambiguous for much longer than that, and HobbyKing and other retailers have been selling transmitters which blatantly violate them for years. It’s still perfectly legal for them to sell lower-power and frequency restricted devices, or less restricted devices only for licensed operators, but they have been doing neither.

      1. A long way? Duh!

        todays us govt…regulating every thing that works well or benefits indivuduals by writing regulations and levying fees and taxes only the wealthy can afford. corporations get breaks and grants to cover their cost. govt then uses regulations to suppress inviduals activities while seldom enforcing the rules against the larger fish.

        ill bet hobby king wouldnt have gotten hit if they didnt cater to the individual.

        1. Not enough regulation is just as bad as too much. Companies will happily kill you if it makes them a little extra profit. If every person can just run a spark gap transmitter with no consequences it doesn’t matter if you can use your hobby-king 600mW transmitter; you’ll simply be prevented by everyone who is more powerful than you.

          The only reason you get to complain about government is because government is protecting your ability to do it.

  7. The current requirement for a ham license is technical competence with radio gear. There is no code requirement and the rules are quite permissive if you have a license.

    I can see no justification for saying that people who do not possess that competence be allowed to do things just because they want to. People are simply limited to lower power than hams if they are not licensed and must use type certified equipment. If someone wants to build their own, let them get a license.

    I have been stunned by what the Chinese have been selling illegally in the US. One of the silencer parts sellers recently got raided by ATF. And 350 people who bought silencer kits got a visit from the ATF.

    Ebay is filled with listings for cheap ham radio kits that do not comply with current FCC regulations. It’s the buyer’s responsibility to make sure that they when put on the air.

    This was long overdue.

    1. There’s no benefit for a wifi device to broadcast outside of the standard Wifi frequency ranges (it’d stop interoperating with standard access points, for one), but there is always a perverse incentive to move video transmitters to higher power and to frequencies away from interference, even if it means stomping on more important bands.

        1. What about the ISPs cellphone carrier? They are using spectrum they are licensed to use, and their customers equipment is covered bt th those licenses.. Hobby King got caught, because they sold radio equipment customers who weren’t license to use, unless they have an amateur radio licenc. You are trying to compare apples to oranges

  8. The FCC fines Hobby King $3M to crack down on seldom used toy model transmitters, yet the FCC completely IGNORES the billions of RF spewing imported Chinese LED light bulbs and switching power supplies that pollute our entire LF, MW, HF, and VHF radio bands. Yeah, that’s the kind of misguided results you get with big bloated government, just don’t let them take over the health care and education systems (oops, too late on that last one, and now the schools are churning out violent brainwashed monsters by the bus load).

  9. I’m pretty sure Hobby King isn’t, operated, by teen out of dad’s garage, Hobby King should have known better, Now I need to go to China mart to find the UHF video equipment they where selling. I have an amateur radio license, and can probably use it, of course it’s my responsibility to inrsue they are clean, RF wise.

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