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.

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Radio Apocalypse: The Emergency Broadcast System

Some sounds are capable of evoking instant terror. It might be the shriek of a mountain lion, or a sudden clap of thunder. Whatever your trigger sound, it instantly stimulates something deep in the lizard brain that says: get ready, danger is at hand.

For my part, you can’t get much scarier than the instantly recognizable two-tone alert signal (audio link warning) from the Emergency Broadcast System (EBS). For anyone who grew up watching TV in the 60s and 70s in the US, it was something you heard on at least a weekly basis, with that awful tone followed by a grave announcement that “the broadcasters of your area, in voluntary cooperation with the FCC and other authorities, have developed this system to keep you informed in the event of an emergency.” It was a constant reminder that white-hot death could rain from the sky at any moment, and the idea that the last thing you may ever hear was that tone was sickening.

While I no longer have a five-year-old’s response to that sound, it’s still a powerful reminder of a scary time. And the fact that it’s still in use today, at least partially, seems like a good reason to look at the EBS in a little more depth, and find out the story behind the soundtrack of the end of the world.

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RF Noise Floor Concerns From Both Sides Of The Atlantic

Our feed is full of stories about the RF noise floor today, and with good reason. The ARRL reports on the International Amateur Radio Union Region 1 president, [Don Beattie, G3BJ] warning that in densely populated parts of Europe there is a danger that parts of the RF spectrum have become so swamped with noise as to be rendered unusable, while on the other side of the Atlantic we have RadioWorld reporting on similar problems facing AM broadcasting in the USA.

At issue are the usual suspects, interference from poorly shielded or suppressed domestic electronic devices, VDSL broadband, power-over-Ethernet, solar and wind power systems, and a host of other RF-spewing electronics. The combined emissions from all these sources have raised the noise level at some frequencies to the point at which it conceals all but the strongest signals. Any radio amateur will tell you that a station in a rural location will be electrically much quieter than one in a city, it seems that this effect has now reached a crescendo.

In the RadioWorld article, the author [Tom F. King] and his collaborator [Jack Sellmeyer] detail a series of tests they performed on a selection of lighting products from a quality brand, bought at a local Home Depot store. They were gathering data for a submission to the FCC enquiry on the noise floor issue we reported on last year. What they found was unsurprising, significant emissions from all the products they tested. They make some stiff recommendations to the FCC and other bodies concerned with radio spectrum to get tough with offending devices, to stay on top of future developments, and for operators of AM stations to pursue sources of interference.

It could be that there is so much equipment contributing to the noise floor that this battle is lost, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Anyone who has had to prepare a product to pass a properly carried out EMC test will tell you that the requirements are stringent, and it is thus obvious that many manufacturers are shipping products unworthy of the certification they display. It is to be hoped that the authorities will begin to take it seriously before it becomes an order of magnitude worse.

Compliance label image, Moppet65535 [CC BY-SA 3.0].

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!

Using The FCC EAS For Fun And Profit

When a consumer electronics device is sold in the US, especially if it has a wireless aspect, it must be tested for compliance with FCC regulations and the test results filed with the FCC (see preparing your product for FCC testing). These documents are then made available online for all to see in the Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) Laboratory Equipment Authorization System (EAS). In fact, it’s this publishing in this and other FCC databases that has led to many leaks about new product releases, some of which we’ve covered, and others we’ve been privileged enough to know about before the filings but whose breaking was forced when the documents were filed, like the Raspberry Pi 3. It turns out that there are a lot of useful things that can be accomplished by poring over FCC filings, and we’ll explore some of them.

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Preparing Your Product For The FCC

At some point you’ve decided that you’re going to sell your wireless product (or any product with a clock that operates above 8kHz) in the United States. Good luck! You’re going to have to go through the FCC to get listed on the FCC OET EAS (Office of Engineering and Technology, Equipment Authorization System). Well… maybe.

As with everything FCC related, it’s very complicated, there are TLAs and confusing terms everywhere, and it will take you a lot longer than you’d like to figure out what it means for you. Whether you suffer through this, breeze by without a hitch, or never plan to subject yourself to this process, the FCC dance is an entertaining story so let’s dive in!

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Police Baffled? Send For The Radio Amateurs!

The police force in Evanston, Illinois had a problem on their hands. A mystery transmitter was blocking legal use of radio devices, car key fobs, cellphones, and other transmitters in an area of their city, and since it was also blocking 911 calls they decided to investigate it. Their first call for help went to the FCC who weren’t much use, telling them to talk to the manufacturers of the devices affected.

Eventually they approached the ARRL, the USA’s national amateur radio organisation, who sent along [Kermit Carlson, W9XA] to investigate. He fairly quickly identified the frequencies with the strongest interference and the likely spot from which it originated, and after some investigation it was traced to a recently replaced neon sign power supply. Surprisingly the supply was not replaced with a fault-free unit, its owner merely agreeing to turn it off should any further interference be reported.

The ARRL are highlighting this otherwise fairly unremarkable case to draw attention to the problem of devices appearing on the market with little or no pretence of electromagnetic compatibility compliance. In particular they are critical of the FCC’s lacklustre enforcement response in cases like this one. It’s a significant problem worldwide as huge numbers of very cheap switch-mode mains power supplies have replaced transformers in mains power applications, and in any center of population its effects can be readily seen with an HF radio in the form of a significantly raised RF noise floor. Though we have reported before on the FCC’s investigation of the noise floor problem we’d be inclined to agree with the ARRL that it is effective enforcement of EMC regulations that is key to the solution.

City of Evanston police vehicle picture, [Inventorchris] (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr.