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FCC Allows Robotic Device in Amateur Band

02/25/2010

In January 2008, a company called ReconRobotics filed a request with the FCC for a waiver of Part 90 of the Commission's Rules with respect to the Recon Scout -- a remote-controlled, maneuverable surveillance robot designed for use in areas that may be too hazardous for human entry. A waiver is required to permit licensing of the Recon Scout because the device operates in the 430-448 MHz band, which is allocated to the Federal Government Radiolocation service on a primary basis, as well as the Amateur Radio Service and certain non-federal radiolocation systems on a secondary basis. More than two years later, the FCC granted the waiver request in the form of an Order (WP Docket No 08-63), subject to certain conditions.

According to ReconRobotics, the Recon Scout device can be thrown, dropped or launched into hazardous areas and can provide an operator located a safe distance away with video and audio, along with infrared, biological, chemical, heat, radiation or other data. It would be marketed for use by state and local law enforcement and firefighting agencies, as well as by security personnel in critical infrastructure industries.

The FCC noted in the Order that they had received more than 70 comments "generally consist[ing] of public safety and law enforcement entities supporting the waiver request, and amateur radio operators opposing it." In their initial waiver request, ReconRobotics asserted that even though the device operates in an area allocated to other services, including Amateur Radio, the Recon Scout operates with only 1 W peak power and it is "unlikely to cause interference to these services."

ARRL's Arguments Against the Waiver

In its comments filed in May 2008 (as told in a May 29, 2009 article on the ARRL Web site), the ARRL called on the FCC to deny ReconRobotics waiver request, "either permanently or even temporarily," calling on the Commission to require ReconRobotics to "initiate a rulemaking proceeding if it feels that the Part 90 or Part 15 rules governing analog devices are not sufficiently accommodating and should be changed, and could be changed consistent with interference avoidance. Repeatedly granting waivers for analog devices which do not meet the fundamental interference avoidance requirements of the existing rules is bad spectrum management and ill-serves the Amateur Service."

The ARRL pointed out in its May 2008 comments that there are differing amateur operations throughout the 420-450 MHz band. One of the channels ReconRobotics is requesting use of -- 442-448 MHz -- is used by amateur repeaters (with band plans varying by locality) and also for Amateur television repeater inputs. "These repeater inputs, both for voice and video, are at high locations where line-of-sight to [ReconRobotics] devices should be expected anywhere in the United States. Repeaters in this band are routinely used for emergency communications via Amateur Radio for numerous served agencies including FEMA, and so at times when the Petioner's device may be expected to be used, the repeaters may be expected to be in operation in the same areas." As such, the ARRL maintained that interference -- both from and to -- the Recon Scout device may be expected on a regular basis from Amateur Radio operations.

"Because [the Recon Scout] operates on a channelized basis, each of the three channels being six megahertz wide, the necessary bandwidth of the device is apparently close to 6 MHz," the ARRL argued. "[ReconRobotics] asks that it be granted an unspecified series of permanent waivers to allow the marketing and sale to, and use of this device by law enforcement and fire department personnel for public safety applications. The Amateur Service, which has a heavily occupied, secondary allocation in the 420-450 MHz band...would be potentially substantially impacted by grant of these waivers."

The ARRL noted that ReconRobotics asked for "unspecified permanent waivers of Part 90 rules" in order to market and sell its product, but, as the ARRL pointed out, more than the Part 90 rules would have to be waived: "Because the three channels (430-436 MHz, 436-442 MHz and 442-448 MHz) on which the device is proposed to operate…are all within that segment [430-450 MHz], what is being requested is not only a waiver of Part 90 service rules, but also a waiver of Section 2.106 of the Commission's Rules, the Table of Allocations. The only allocations in the 430-450 MHz band are for Government Radiolocation (limited to military radars) and on a secondary basis, the Amateur Service. Per Section 90.273 of the Commission's rules, frequencies above 429.99375 MHz and below 450 MHz are unavailable to stations in the land mobile service anywhere in the United States."

The ARRL's comments also stated that ReconRobotics "fails to establish that the 420-450 MHz band is the only viable choice and that no other band would be suitable; an obligation of the Petitioner in order to entitle it to a waiver. In requesting the waiver, ARRL asserts that ReconRobotics only claimed, but did not show, prove or demonstrate, that other bands were not suitable for its purposes. In other cases before the FCC as recent as 2006, the Commission denied such waivers, saying, "We do not believe that the public interest requires grant of a waiver merely to accommodate a manufacturer's choice of a specific frequency when others are available." The ARRL contended that "nothing in the four corners of [ReconRobotics'] request indicates anything that would verify the factual conclusions offered. The waiver request boils down to 'trust us, we have checked into this.'"

The ARRL claimed that a permanent waiver of the Commission's Rules permitting nationwide marketing and use on a licensed basis of land mobile short-range transmitters, benefiting as it does only one manufacturer to the exclusion of all others, "is an inferior method of conducting spectrum allocations and spectrum management" and that ReconRobotics "should be required to refile its proposal as a petition to modify the Table of Allocations for this purpose. Its petition should be vetted in the normal course, and would be properly evaluated based on a complete technical compatibility showing, which is not included in the present Waiver Request."

Upon learning that the FCC had granted the waiver, ARRL Chief Executive Officer David Sumner, K1ZZ said that "While we are completely sympathetic to the desires of law enforcement and firefighting agencies and certain security personnel to have a tool like the Recon Scout at their disposal, the fact remains that 430-448 MHz is a poor choice of frequency range for such a device in the United States. In its Order, the Commission does not say otherwise; it simply concludes that by imposing an array of conditions and limitations on the use of the device by eligible Part 90 licensees, the potential for harmful interference to Federal and licensed non-Federal users of this band can be, in the Commission's view, adequately minimized. The Order falls short of requiring that the manufacturer adequately explain these conditions and limitations to its potential customers and does not explain how the Commission will enforce its requirements. We share the concerns expressed by NTIA on behalf of the Federal users of the band with regard to development of mass-marketed consumer devices that the Commission has no ability to control. Everyone's interests would have been better served had the manufacturer spent the last two years on engineering, redesigning its product for a more suitable frequency range, rather than on advocacy to legalize the domestic use of a product that was designed for military use abroad."

In a February 2010 letter to Julius Knapp, Chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology from Karl Nebbia, Associate Administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's (NTIA) Office of Spectrum Manager, Nebbia told the FCC that the NTIA has concerns that "[i]f mass-marketed low power consumer devices are permitted to operate in the 420-450 MHz band, this could adversely impact the performance of critical radar systems." The NTIA listed several conditions that is said "are necessary to preclude the development of mass-marketed consumer devices that, over time, could impact the use of the 420-450 MHz band by federal systems."

The Waiver Is Granted

The FCC noted that Section 1.925 of the Commission's Rules provides that they may grant a waiver if "it is shown that (a) the underlying purpose of the rule(s) would not be served or would be frustrated by application to the instant case, and grant of the requested waiver would be in the public interest; or (b) in light of unique or unusual circumstances, application of the rule(s) would be inequitable, unduly burdensome, or contrary to the public interest, or the applicant has no reasonable alternative." The Commission concluded that "ReconRobotics has met the first prong of the waiver standard and that the grant of the request is warranted, subject to certain conditions."

The FCC explained that "one purpose of allocating different spectrum bands to different services is to prevent harmful interference" and that ReconRobotics asserts that operation of the Recon Scout is unlikely to cause interference to the other services using the 430-448 MHz band, "because the device operates with lower power (1 W peak power, 0.25 W average power) than radiolocation systems. With respect to amateur operations, ReconRobotics asserts that amateur satellite downlinks should not experience interference because earth station antennas are angled too high to detect a low-power device near ground level; and that terrestrial amateur operations are unlikely to experience interference due to the Recon Scout's low power and brief, itinerant operation, and amateur transmitters' much higher power. Moreover, ReconRobotics acknowledges that the Recon Scout would operate on a secondary basis to amateur services in the band, obligating its users to avoid causing interference."

The ARRL, as well as some Amateur Radio operators who submitted comments on the waiver request, stated that because amateur satellite orbits are not geosynchronous, amateur earth station antennas often point toward the horizon to receive low-level signals. The FCC, however, agreed with ReconRobotics, "that interference to amateur satellite communications is unlikely. The Recon Scout will be used infrequently and will be limited in number, significantly reducing the possibility of interference. In addition, it is unlikely that Recon Scout would have a significant effect on the ability of even an amateur earth station operating near the horizon to receive a low-level satellite signal, given the variety of natural and man-made interference sources such as terrain, trees, buildings, and other obstacles and ground level interferers having a greater effect on reception. We conclude, therefore, that grant of a waiver to permit equipment authorization and customer licensing of the Recon Scout on 436-442 MHz clearly is appropriate, because the device is unlikely to cause interference to amateur satellite communications in the 435-438 MHz segment."

According to the Commission, the remainder of the 436-442 MHz segment is used by amateurs for wideband amateur television (ATV) operations. The FCC cited the 2002 edition of The ARRL Handbook for Radio Amateurs (pages 12.44-12.51), noting "that amateur stations transmitting a video signal to a repeater station typically use much higher power than the Recon Scout and may use high gain, directional antennas. We believe, therefore, that the signal of the amateur station can reasonably be expected to be much stronger than the signal of the Recon Scout at the repeater's receiving antenna, and that the stronger signal of the amateur station will capture the repeater, thereby minimizing any interference from a Recon Scout. Accordingly, we find no basis in the record before us to believe that operation of the Recon Scout on 436-442 MHz will create interference to ATV operations."

The FCC stated that they are "not as clear" if the Recon Scout can operate in the 430-436 MHz and 442-448 MHz segments "without causing harmful interference." Some Amateur Radio operators, in their comments, stated that 1 W is more than enough to activate a repeater, which could cause interference to an entire system of linked repeaters. In addition, the 432-433 MHz segment is used for long-range weak signal communications utilizing very sensitive receivers. "We note, however, that deployment of the Recon Scout on multiple channels is expected to be rare. Therefore, we believe that interference to these amateur operations can largely be avoided by requiring deployment first in the 436-442 MHz segment, then in the 442-448 MHz segment and in the 430-436 MHz segment only if the other two channels already are in use."

FCC Imposes Special Conditions

The FCC noted that ReconRobotics will need to follow the following special conditions:

  • Eligibility is limited to state and local police and firefighters eligible for licensing under Section 90.20(a)(1) of the Commission's Rules, and security personnel in critical infrastructure industries. Any offer for sale or lease of the Recon Scout will state these eligibility limits.
  • The Recon Scout may be used only during actual emergencies involving threats to safety of life and for necessary training related to such operations. Security personnel in critical infrastructure industries may operate the Recon Scout only in areas that are environmentally hazardous for entry by human personnel, and for necessary training related to such operations.
  • Training operations are not permitted within 30 kilometers of certain US military installations.
  • The first unit sold to a responding organization will operate on 436-442 MHz, with the 442-448 MHz version being sold only to entities that already own the 436-442 MHz version and the 430-436 MHz version being sold only to entities that already own the other two versions.
  • The number of units to be sold is limited to 2000 during the first year following equipment approval and 8000 during the second year. Future sales of the Recon Scout will be reconsidered at the end of this period. ReconRobotics may request authorization to sell additional units in subsequent years.
  • The Recon Scout will operate on a secondary basis (cannot cause interference and is not protected from interference) to all federal users and licensed non-federal users.
  • The operation of the Recon Scout may be impacted in the vicinity of certain radar and ionospheric research sites. Recon Scout transmitters shall be labeled as required in Part 2 of the Commission's Rules, and shall bear the following statement in a conspicuous location on the device: "This device may not interfere with Federal stations operating in the 420-450 MHz band and must accept any interference received." In addition, the following statement shall be placed in the instruction manual: "Although this transmitter has been approved by the Federal Communications Commission, there is no guarantee that it will not receive interference."

The FCC also noted that operation of the Recon Scout by eligible entities will require a separate Commission authorization: "Applications must reference this Order. Applicants must specify the proposed area of operation, and the requested frequency segment. Part 90 frequency coordination is not required. No operation is permitted prior to license grant, and no applications will be granted until ReconRobotics obtains equipment authorization. Licensees must maintain a log of all Recon Scout use. The log will include date of operation, start/stop times, location of operation, frequency segment of operation, reason for use and point of contact. Licensees must provide this log to the Federal Communications Commission or to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration upon request of either agency."

In conclusion, the FCC pointed out that some commenters were concerned that use of the Recon Scout will not be limited to emergencies and that it is meaningless to authorize the device on a secondary basis "because even if amateurs can identify the source of interference, public safety entities will not discontinue use of the device in the middle of an operation. We do not believe that this speculation is grounds to deny the waiver request, but we caution prospective users that operation of the Recon Scout in an unauthorized manner will subject licensees to Commission enforcement action and license revocation. Widespread improper use could lead us to stop granting or renewing Recon Scout authorizations."

The ARRL Executive Committee will consider what additional steps can be taken with regard to the grant of this waiver.



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