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ARRL Drone Transmitters Complaint Spurs Proposed $2.8 Million FCC Penalty


In the wake of an investigation resulting from a 2017 ARRL complaint, the FCC has proposed fining HobbyKing and associated entities $2.8 million for apparently marketing noncompliant 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 transmitters (A/V) intended for use with unmanned aircraft, such as drones, marketing them as Amateur Radio equipment in some instances.

“The Enforcement Bureau previously issued a Citation notifying HobbyKing of its legal and regulatory obligations and ordering it to cease and desist from marketing noncompliant 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.”

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.

ARRL told the Enforcement Bureau in 2017 that the devices “represent a real and dangerous threat to the safety of flight, especially when operated from a drone platform that can be hundreds of feet in the air.” Hare and ARRL Lab staffers Mike Gruber, W1MG and Bob Allison, WB1GCM, tested the units. Imlay credited ARRL Central Division Director Kermit Carlson, W9XA, and the Electromagnetic Compatibility Committee he chairs, for calling attention to the issue and prompting ARRL’s action.

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.”

“The Commission generally has not required amateur equipment to be certified, but such equipment must be designed to operate only in frequency bands allocated for amateur use,” the NAL said. “If such equipment can operate in amateur and non-amateur frequencies, it must be certified prior to marketing and operation.” The FCC also said in its NAL that consumers who own such HobbyKing devices “should cease using them immediately or risk enforcement action.”

The FCC this week also issued an Enforcement Advisory cautioning that drone transmitters must comply with FCC rules in order to be marketed to customers in the US, and that operators must comply with FCC rules.

“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.



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