Getting an FCC License to Fly FPV
One thing most multirotor pilots interested in flying with FPV technology don’t realize is that one of the prerequisites to flying FPV is getting an amateur radio licence from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Don’t let this dampen your interested in FPV though; getting a license is fairly easy, and I think it actually helps improve pilots’ skills.
Why do I need a license to fly FPV?
In general, if you are operating a multirotor, or any other radio-controlled vehicle, built using off-the-shelf components, and you are flying with a line-of-sight perspective, you do not need a license. So, for example, you don’t need a license to operate the multirotors in my SK450 Dead Cat quadcopter, or Rotor Bits tricopter tutorials. This is because RC components sold in the United States go through a certification process with the FCC. This process is designed to establish two things:
- that the radio system does not cause interference with other radio equipment
- that the radio system still works reasonably well in the presence of interference from other sources
These two criteria are basically safety concerns. The FCC wants to make sure that if several radio-control systems are operating in close proximity, nobody will lose control of their systems due to interference.
Devices that have passed the FCC certification process will have a special logo somewhere on the device. Sometimes the logo is molded into the plastic housing, sometimes it can be found in the battery compartment, and sometimes the logo is on a sticker. The logo is called the “FCC Declaration of Conformity“, or the “FCC label”, or the “FCC mark.”
Things get a bit more complex when you introduce FPV into the mix. Most video transmission systems, like the kinds commonly used in FPV setups, are not certified by the FCC. Therefore, the burden of preventing and tolerating interference between FPV gear and other radio signals falls on the operator (there are a few exceptions, like the DJI Phantom Vision+). So, the FCC requires FPV pilots to get an amateur radio license as a way of making sure that pilots have the knowledge and training necessary to operate their FPV systems safely. It is the same logic behind the U.S. government’s requiring people to get driver’s licenses. Just as state governments want to make sure operators of motor vehicles have the knowledge and training to do so safely, the FCC wants to make sure operators of FPV aircraft fly safely. Fortunately, getting an amateur radio license from the FCC is much easier, and much faster, than getting a driver’s license.
So the simple answer to the question, “why do I need a license to fly FPV?” is, it’s the law. Some might balk at the nanny state requiring a license for a hobby like flying FPV, but the fact is, safety is important. Plus, going through the process of getting an amateur radio license is actually quite educational; I think it makes pilots better, in addition to making the hobby safer for everybody.
How do I get an amateur radio license?
Fortunately, getting an amateur radio license is fairly easy. This is partially because, even though amateur radio licenses are regulated by the FCC, the tests required to obtain a license (more on that in a second) are actually administered by local, volunteer groups of amateur radio operators. So unlike when you’re getting a driver’s license, you will not have to wait in line for hours at the DMV and work with apathetic state employees. Instead, you get to work with amateur radio enthusiasts, people who are excited and knowledgeable about amateur radio and who want to help you succeed. Basically, local radio clubs administer the tests, and then send the results to the FCC, which then issues the amateur radio license.
The license is actually the same one required for operating HAM radios, which has been the typical use for the license in years past. Therefore, by “groups of amateur radio operators” the FCC is really referring to local HAM radio clubs. The reason the same license is required for operating HAM radios as is required for flying FPV is because the knowledge required to operate either system safely is basically the same.
There are three levels of amateur radio licenses issued by the FCC: the Technician License, the General License, and the Amateur Extra License. The higher the class of license, the more frequencies are available. The higher license classes also require passing a more difficult examination. For operating FPV aircraft, we only require the most basic license, the Technician License.
Earning a Technician License requires passing a 35-question multiple-choice examination; a passing grade is 70%, or 26 correct answers. The questions on the test are pulled from a large pool of potential questions developed every four years. While you will not know which exact questions will be on your examination until you sit down to take it, the pool of potential questions is freely available online. The current question pool was released in July 2014, and will remain in use until June 2018.
Preparing for the test
If you look over the question pool, you will notice that, for the Technician License examination, none of the questions are overly technical. Most of the questions address the responsibilities and expectations for amateur radio operators. The few technical questions on the test don’t go much beyond high school physics or very basic electrical theory. But, although you should not be intimidated by the exam, you will need to study if you want to have a good chance of passing. You will find some people around various forums claiming that you only need a few hours to study for the exam, but I really think this is untrue. Don’t get too stressed out about the difficulty of the exam, but you will probably need a week or two of consistent studying time to master the material.
There are many ways you can choose to study for the examination, and the one you pick will really just depend on your particular learning style:
- If you like to read, there are a bunch of books available. Many of the books include extra resources, like an answer key for the question pool, and practice tests.
- If you like watching videos, there is a very good video series by The HAM Whisperer that goes through all of the areas covered on the Technicians License exam.
- If you like traditional classes, some HAM radio clubs offer classes that will help prepare you for the test.
- Otherwise, if you are an avid Googler, there are numerous webpages out there with study resources, answer keys, practice tests, tips, advice, and more.
In general, whichever study method you choose, I would advise skimming the material, and taking a practice test to establish your baseline performance. Then you can go back and focus on the areas in which you scored worst. Continue this process until you are consistently acing the practice exams.
Taking the test
When you have done enough studying that you feel comfortable about your changes of passing the exam, you are going to need to find out when and where to take your exam. There are thousands of amateur radio clubs around the United States and I can’t speak for all of them, but I think many hold FCC license tests on a regular basis. For example, my local amateur radio club holds exam sessions every Saturday morning. Just check the website and/or call your local amateur radio club to find out about their exam schedule.
There are just a few things you will need to take your FCC license exam. First of all, you will need to bring some money to pay for your exam. I am not sure if there is some kind of universal fee for the FCC license exam, but every amateur radio club I have looked up charges $15. Second, you will need to bring some form of identification. The easiest way to identify yourself on your exam day is with a driver’s license. However there are several other documents, or sometimes combinations of documents, that you can present instead. Check with your testing cite to make sure you have an acceptable form of identification. Last, you will also need a standard calculator, nothing with any fancy features or memory is allowed. You will not need a fancy calculator for this exam anyway.
Generally, the people administering the exam at your local amateur radio club will grade your exam on the spot so you will know your score right away. When I took my exam, the exam started at 8:00 in the morning and my exam was finished and graded by 10:00.
After you take (and pass) the test
After you take the test, assuming you earned a passing score, the amateur radio club that administered the test to you will send the results to the FCC. The FCC is the organization that actually issues licences. Within two weeks, your name will be listed in the FCC license database and you will be ready to fly. These two weeks are a fantastic time to order whatever parts you need to build your FPV-equipped multirotor. Also, the licenses are good for ten years, so you will not have to take the exam very often. By the time your parts arrive and you assemble your multirotor, your information should have been entered into the FCC database and you can go out and fly FPV for the first time. It is an amazing experience, I assure you.