Persons who fly drones with first-person view, or FPV, may be surprised to learn that they need to obtain an amateur radio license in order to legally use an on-board video system during flights. FPV, also known as remote-person view (RPV) and video piloting, allows a drone pilot to control the aircraft as if they were in the pilot’s seat.
In this guide:
To control an FPV drone remotely requires two radio links — a bidirectional link to control the drone and receive telemetry information from the drone and a downlink that transmits video from the drone. It’s the video link that allows the operator to see where the drone is going and to control its movements.
Typically, the control link operates in the 2.4 GHz band, while the video link operates in the 5.8 GHz band. These frequency bands are used for a number of purposes, and in the United States, the use of these frequencies is strictly controlled by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Devices that operate on these frequencies must be FCC-certified.
Do I need a ham radio license to fly FPV?
Technically, you can fly FPV drones without a ham radio license in some cases – however, if you exceed power limits or use incorrect frequency bands without a license, you could be in violation of FCC regulations. For this reason, we recommend that you pass your ham radio license exam before operating any FPV drones.
The primary component of FPV drones that may require an amateur radio license is the Video TX/RX system. These components generally operate on the 2.4GHz, 5 GHz, and 900MHz channels. Some devices in these frequencies may be approved for use without a license. However, amateur radio operators have special privileges under Part 97 rules from the FCC that allow additional power and modification of devices on these frequencies. This means you can operate legally at with more power over longer distances.
In addition to helping you stay legal, this will also add to your capabilities in the hobby, and open up the world of ham radio to explore as an added bonus.
Be aware, however, that some drone transmitters are capable of operating on frequencies outside of the amateur radio bands. Doing so is illegal, even if you do have an amateur radio license.
Fines for operating FPV Drones illegally
In 2018, the FCC issued a warning about drone audio/video transmitters used for FPV service.. This warning states, “When buying drone accessories that either are electronic or have electronic components, operators should ensure that such devices or components are properly labeled as FCC-compliant. Individuals without an amateur license may not use such radio equipment if it is designed solely for use by amateur licensees.”
Unfortunately, many FPV video systems sold in the United States are imported and are not certified by the FCC. While they may be legal to use in other countries, they are not legal to use in the United States. These systems may, for example, exceed the power output limit for unlicensed operation. Operating them at high power levels is clearly illegal, and in fact, the FCC recently fined a retailer of drone transmitters nearly $3 million for selling these systems.
Don’t take a chance with the FCC! The 2018 warning notes that, “The Bureau will take very seriously any reports of failures of drone operators to comply with all relevant rules and requirements when using devices in the amateur bands.” It goes on to say that violators may be subject to “substantial monetary fines.” Getting your ham ticket and operating your drone under the terms of that license will allow you to fly with peace of mind.
And, who knows, becoming a licensed radio amateur may open up a whole new world for you! Amateur radio is a great hobby and offers many exciting opportunities.
Which ham license do I need for FPV drones?
There are multiple levels of amateur radio licenses. However, to fly your FPV drone legally, you just need to get the Technician Class license. The Technician Class licensees have full privileges in the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands. That allows you to use transmitters with an output power up to 1 W. This will allow you to fly further than you could with lower-power, unlicensed transmitters.
Here are the types of amateur radio licenses available:
The good news is that it is relatively easy to obtain your ham license so that you can fly your drones legally. After studying for the exam (check out Ham Radio Prep’s system to help you get your license), you need to answer only 26 out of 35 questions to pass the Technician Class exam. Then you are ready to finally operate your FPV drones legally!