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.”