Drones are everywhere. You've seen those You Tube videos of hams using drones to carry antennas over tall trees. But there is a sinister side to this drone business. The manufacturers of those things (most of which are made in China) have no respect for FCC rules. They seemed to think they can put these things on any frequency they choose and to hell with the rules. Well, that is about to cost those lawbreakers more than a small fortune.
In the wake of an investigation resulting from a 2017 ARRL complaint, the FCC has proposed fining Hobbh King and associated entities $2.8 million for apparently marketing noncompliance RF devices and failing to comply with Commission orders. According to a June 5 FCC Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL), HobbyKing appears to have sold audio/video (A/V) transmitters intended for use with unmanned aircraft, such as drones, in some instances marketing them as Amateur Radio equipment.
HobbyKing had denied that it was marketing its drone transmitters to US customers, but ARRL's January 2017 complaint pointed out that ARRL Laboratory Manager Ed Hare, W1RFI, was able to purchase two drone transmitters from HobbyKing and have them shipped to a US address for testing in the Lab.
In his 2017 letter to the FCC Spectrum Enforcement Division, ARRL General Counsel Chris Imlay, W3KD, described the transmitters as "blatantly illegal at multiple levels," and noted that they used frequencies intended for navigational aids, air traffic control radar, air route surveillance radars, and global positioning systems and not Amateur Radio frequencies, as the marketer had purported.
"The Enforcement Bureau previously issued a Citation notifying HobbyKing of its legal and regulatory obligations and ordering it to cease and desist from marketing noncompliance equipment," the FCC said in the NAL. "Additionally, the Bureau issued a Citation against HobbyKing for failing to fully respond to a Letter of Inquiry. Despite these Citations, HobbyKing has continued its apparently unlawful practices."
In a related news release this week, the FCC said that while HobbyKing represented that its transmitters operated in designated Amateur Radio bands, the Commission's investigation uncovered that 65 models could also apparently operate outside of the ham bands. The FCC noted that Amateur Radio equipment used to telecommand model craft are limited to 1 W (1,000 mW), but three transmitters included in the NAL "apparently operate at significantly higher power levels of 1,500 mW and 2,000 mW."
"However, many A/V transmitters that purport to operate on amateur frequencies also operate on frequencies that extend beyond the designated amateur frequency bands," the advisory said. "If an A/V transmitter is capable of operating outside of the amateur frequency bands, it cannot be advertised, sold, or operated within the United States without an FCC equipment certification. Individuals without an amateur license may not use such radio equipment, if it is designed solely for use by amateur licensees."
Imlay said the FCC action addressed "another of many instances in which unscrupulous importers import and market products in the US touted as Amateur Radio equipment but actually marketed to the general public, and which, in this case, have a high potential for abuse and interference to other radio services and to radio amateurs." Imlay characterized the FCC NAL as an important "line in the sand" aimed at keeping companies from encouraging the general public to use the amateur bands without a license.
So be careful out there. When your neighbor offers to use his drone to give you a video of your beam, make sure he isn't breaking a FCC rule. You may turn out to be an accessory to a crime. Or, make sure you have some extra millions for the fine.
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