Requested waiver would let ground penetrating radar operate higher above the ground than current ultra-wideband rules allow.

headsight logo-1Down here in the CommLawBlog bunker, we urban types think of agriculture as dealing primarily with dirt. But in fact modern farming relies on a lot of technology, including precision satellite observations, high-end drones, and self-driving, GPS-guided tractors.

With a little cooperation from the FCC, farmers may soon have a new kind of radar: a device that will see downward through crops to the ground surface. This will help to accurately position the cutting height of harvesting equipment, producing faster operation and improved crop yields.

It sounds like a no-brainer, right? A traditionally low tech problem solved with high tech wizardry. Surely the FCC’s rules will allow this, won’t they?

If you saw our piece a few weeks ago about ultra-wideband, the technology behind the crop radar, you know the answer. As we explained there, the FCC limits the use of ultra-wideband to just eight specific applications, each with its own restrictions and detailed technical regulations. Any application not specifically mentioned in the 2002 rules needs a waiver. Headsight, Inc., which makes the new agricultural radar, has applied for one, and the FCC has invited comments on it.

The Headsight device starts with a “ground penetrating radar” (GPR), which is just what it sounds like. If you want to locate the pipes under your driveway or find a 23,000-year-old mammoth buried in Arctic permafrost, a GPR is your tool of choice. But the FCC rules say a GPR must be designed to operate within one meter of the ground. Headsight wants to operate theirs farther up, but still no higher than one meter above the crops.

Ultra-wideband equipment by definition transmits across a wide swath of spectrum, in this case 1-6 GHz. The rulemaking for ultra-wideband brought out a great many spectrum users who feared interference into their various services. In evaluating Headsight’s request, the FCC will primarily consider whether a waiver would elevate the risk of interference to any other user.

That analysis should not take long. True, the 1-6 GHz range includes a lot of important and sensitive services: GPS, cell phones, 3G and 4G, satellite downlinks, radio astronomy, and many more. But the FCC-imposed power limits for GPRs, which Headsight promises to respect, are so microscopically low as to rule out interference to any other device beyond a very short distance. In an agricultural setting there should no potential interference victims close enough to be affected – except, perhaps, the GPS guiding the equipment and the operator’s cell phone, but the GPR power limits in those bands should be low enough to protect even them.

We hope the FCC promptly grants this request. We’d like to see the agency then pivot to a rulemaking that does away with the limitation to eight ultra-wideband applications, and instead adopts technical rules that allow any application whose radio emissions are low enough to prevent interference to others. Ultra-wideband has a lot to offer to a wide range of industries, once it is free of unneeded regulatory restrictions.

Comments on the Headlight request are due by March 21, 2016; reply comments are due by April 5. Comments and replies may be filed through the FCC’s online ECFS filing webpage; refer to Proceeding No. 16-44.

(FHH does not represent clients in this proceeding.)