FCC Upholds Surveillance Robots over Amateur Radio - Again

Order reaffirms right of police and fire departments to license robots.

Surveillance robot maker ReconRobotics, Inc. continues to prevail over the best efforts of the amateur radio community. Most recently, the FCC ruled against the amateurs in reaffirming the right of police and fire departments to license ReconRobotics’s robots for operational use.

Read here about the device, which runs around under remote control and sends video back to the operator. (We’d love to have one to play with here in the office.) It operates under an FCC waiver, granted over the objections of ARRL, the national association for amateur radio, and several individual amateur licensees. The amateurs had concerns about interference from the robot’s radio into their communications, and feared also they might be blamed if their operations cause interference to a robot. Having failed to block the waiver the first time, the amateurs asked the FCC to reconsider the grant, which the FCC declined to do.

Meanwhile, ARRL and one James Edwin Whedbee, an amateur licensee, asked the FCC to reject  a batch of several dozen license applications filed by police and fire departments for use of the robots. Their petitions recycled many of the same grounds on which ARRL had opposed the waiver. The FCC turned them down. ARRL and Whedbee both demanded reconsideration of that decision, while Whedbee went on alone to challenge a second batch of applications.

Some months later, Whedbee commendably reported to the FCC that, contrary to his earlier suspicions, in fact he had detected no interference from robot operations. He accordingly moved to withdraw all of his objections.

The FCC has now granted Whedbee’s requests to withdraw, and in the same order, turned down ARRL’s most recent request for reconsideration.

Is the saga over? Will first responders around the country now be able to use these life-saving devices without having to battle the amateurs every step of the way? Will CommLawBlog finally have to find something else to write about? We’ll let you know.

(Disclosure: FHH represents ReconRobotics, Inc. in these proceedings.)

FCC Okays Licensing of Surveillance Robot over Amateurs' Objections

A detailed order squelches amateur radio operators’ third attempt to derail a lifesaving technology.

The FCC has okayed the grant of dozens of licenses to allow police and fire departments around the country to operate a surveillance robot called the Recon Scout. The action came over strong opposition from members of the amateur radio community, who have fought deployment of the Recon Scout at every stage.

We described the device here: the size of a beer can with a wheel on each end, and a TV camera peering out. The Recon Scout is light enough in weight for a non-athlete to throw into a third-floor window, yet survives repeated 30-foot drops onto concrete. The associated wireless hand-held controller has a joystick to drive and steer the unit, and a TV screen to show what the camera in the unit sees. The units allow users to send in “eyes” where it’s not safe for people to go. The U.S. military has been working with the device in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years to rave reviews.

Police and fire departments, and security personnel in critical infrastructure industries, wanted access to the same technology. Their expected uses variously include checking a building prior to forced entry, locating hostages and hostiles before a rescue attempt, searching for survivors in a burning building, and inspecting the site of a chemical or nuclear release. Unlike military applications, which are outside FCC jurisdiction, adoption by state and local first responders requires two kinds of FCC approval. First is an FCC certification that establishes the device complies with applicable technical rules; second are FCC licenses needed to operate the units, much like police and fire departments’ licenses for their two-way radios.

Before it could obtain certification, though, the Recon Scout needed a waiver of the FCC’s technical rules. The video feed from the device uses part of the 420-450 MHz band – frequencies that are allocated for radar and certain other applications, but not for video. Amateur radio operators took an interest because they have a secondary allocation in that band. (“Secondary” here means the amateurs may not cause harmful interference to federal-government radars, and must accept any interference from those radars.) ReconRobotics, the company that makes the Recon Scout, offered to accommodate the amateurs by making use of the Recon Scout secondary, in turn, to amateur operations.

Amateur radio interests nonetheless opposed an FCC waiver that would allow the Recon Scout to share their band. They first claimed the device would cause interference to their operations. Later, they added a second objection: that amateurs would be blamed for any interference they caused to the Recon Scout during emergency police and fire activity.

The FCC carefully considered both of these concerns and dismissed them. In February, 2010, it granted the waiver ReconRobotics had requested, ruling that the public interest in protecting first responders outweighed any small risk of interference to the amateurs. The FCC carefully limited use of the device to actual emergencies and necessary training. And it made clear that Recon Scout users had to protect amateur operators from interference. As to interference the other way, into the Recon Scout, the FCC essentially ruled the amateurs could not be held responsible.

ReconRobotics duly obtained an FCC certification and began selling units to police and fire departments around the country. Those customers began applying to the FCC for the licenses they needed to operate the device.

Now the amateurs moved on two fronts. First, they petitioned the FCC to reconsider the waiver, based mostly on the same arguments they had raised against the original grant. The FCC again found the arguments wanting, and, in April, 2011, it affirmed the waiver.

While the waiver reconsideration was still pending, amateur interests also filed individual Petitions to Deny against each of the dozens of police and fire departments’ applications for FCC operating licenses. By now their arguments were familiar, having been largely word-processed from the repeated objections to the waiver.  As an additional challenge, the amateurs questioned the Recon Scout’s certification, claiming it departed from the terms of the waiver. But again, the FCC found for ReconRobotics and its customers. In a closely-reasoned order, it has now turned down the Petitions to Deny and allowed the grant of the licenses to go forward.

Simultaneously, the FCC has responded favorably to another request from ReconRobotics, allowing the continued sale of units under the waiver in the years to come.

The amateurs are not yet out of options. Because the two recent orders came from the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, respectively, the amateurs have the right to appeal them to the full Commission, and if that decision goes against them, to bring an action in the U.S. Court of Appeals. In the meantime, though, police and fire departments around the country will have the benefit of the Recon Scout’s lifesaving technology. As one police official put it, during early testing of the device, “We don’t feel comfortable without this thing now.”

FCC Reaffirms Rule Waiver for Surveillance Robot

Amateur radio operators fail on petitions for reconsideration.

Last year we reported on the FCC’s grant of a waiver for a surveillance robot called the Recon Scout, over the objections of the amateur radio community. Well, that’s that, said the amateurs, and went on to something else.

We’re kidding. That’s not what they said. ARRL, the National Association for Amateur Radio, along with three individual amateurs, asked the FCC to withdraw the waiver.

The FCC has now turned down those requests. It dismissed one individual’s petition because he filed it five months after the deadline. It denied the other two individuals’ petitions, and most of ARRL’s, because they largely raised issues the FCC had already addressed in the original grant.

The only changes resulting from the decision are expanded labeling on the device and a longer note in the instruction manual – changes that the Recon Scout manufacturer had publicly endorsed.

FCC Unleashes Surveillance Robot

Waiver makes remote-control TV device available to police and firefighters.

Start with something the size of a beer can. Put a wheel on each end, and a TV camera inside, peering out. Pack in a lot of electronics, motors, and batteries. Make the unit able to survive repeated 30-foot drops, but keep the weight to just over a pound. Provide a separate, hand-held controller with a joystick to drive the unit, and a TV screen to show the user what the unit sees. 

The result is a surveillance robot called the “Recon Scout,” which the FCC recently authorized under a waiver.

The U.S. military has been using the device in Iraq and Afghanistan for a few years now. Before entering a building, troops can toss a Scout into an upper-story window and steer it down the stairs and through the rooms to detect hostile persons and size up their armament.

With the FCC waiver in hand, U.S. police and fire departments, and security personnel in critical infrastructure industries, will have access to the same technology. Typical applications are likely to include checking a building prior to forced entry, locating hostages and hostiles before a rescue attempt, searching for survivors in a burning building, and inspecting the site of a chemical or nuclear release. A police task force told the FCC, after testing the Recon Scout, “We don't feel comfortable without this thing now.”

The manufacturer faced a problem, one increasingly common for new radio-based technologies. The product was plainly in the public interest – no one disputed that it could save lives – but there was no place for it in the FCC’s spectrum allocations.   True, the robot came with constraints. For one, it needs frequencies below about 500 MHz to achieve adequate penetration of building walls, at power levels sustainable by batteries in a one-pound device. For another, it requires analog modulation, even at the cost of more radio bandwidth. Digital TV transmission cuts off abruptly if the robot ventures too far, making it impossible for the operator to drive it back into range.

The military version of the Recon Scout, which is not subject to FCC oversight, operates in the 420-450 MHz band. Domestically, that band is allocated primarily for military radar, and secondarily for amateur use. With nowhere else in the spectrum to go, the manufacturer asked the FCC to waive its spectrum usage rules to allow operation in that same band.

Several police and fire departments supported the waiver. A number of amateur radio operators opposed it. Also weighing in, as is usual in such proceedings, was the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which administers spectrum for the federal government, including the military. NTIA warned that it did not want to see mass-marketed consumer devices in a military radar band. But it acknowledged that law enforcement and firefighting agencies could benefit from the Recon Scout. On that basis it signed off, except for operation within 30 km of five specified radar sites.

The FCC likewise signed off, adopting NTIA’s restrictions and adding conditions of its own, including limits on sales numbers for the first two years.   Police and fire personnel around the country will feel a little safer.

Read the FCC order here.