As much as we love to give you an inside look at all sorts of cool toys and gadgets, the job also includes a responsibility to educate you on the finer points of using those toys responsibly and lawfully. Such is the case with our recent videos featuring Carlos Puertolas (Charpu). Those videos have captured the attention of many readers who are now interested in First Person View (FPV) quad-rotor racing--including me. What you might not know is that one of the prerequisites for most types of FPV flying is obtaining an amateur radio license (aka “ham radio license”) from the FCC (Federal Communications Commission). Don’t let that fact quench your FPV ambitions. Getting a license is easy, and maybe even a little bit fun.
Why Do I Need a License?
Assuming that you are using a standard, off-the-shelf radio system, just flying a multi-rotor (or operating any other type of RC vehicle) with a line-of-sight perspective does not require a FCC license. That is because RC systems sold in the US go through a certification process with the FCC. The certification ensures that the system does not create interference with other equipment. The FCC also verifies that the radio works acceptably well in the presence of interference from other sources. As long as you do not modify any part of the system, you can be reasonably sure that an RC system will perform as intended, while not stepping on the signals of any other flyers or drivers.
The license comes into play when you introduce an FPV system into the mix. Most video transmission systems used for FPV do NOT have a FCC certification. Therefore, the FCC places the burden of preventing and tolerating signal interference on the operator. The amateur radio license is the FCC’s way of determining that users of this equipment have demonstrated adequate training and proficiency to uphold that responsibility. It’s the same logic that’s behind getting a driver’s license.
As I write this, there are only a handful of FPV systems that do not require a license. Most of them are Wi-Fi-based systems such as those seen on the Phantom 2 Vision+ and Blade 350QX2. Wi-Fi video systems typically have limited range and measurable latency. This may be ok if your only goal is to cruise around shooting video. But the latency alone makes Wi-Fi systems inadequate for racing.
I am only aware of one non-Wi-Fi FPV system that is FCC certified and can be used without a license. The operational range for this system is estimated to be about 600’. Of course, variables such as your flying altitude and any solid obstacles between the video receiver and the aircraft could impact that value. If this system meets your performance requirements, then you’re all set. Certainly, the future holds other FPV systems with FCC certification. Until then, your license-free options are limited. Unless a video transmitter has specific markings stating that it is compliant with FCC Part 15 requirements, you will need a license to operate it legally.