As an instructor, there is nothing quite as unnerving as standing in front of a room full of students and suddenly realizing that the words escaping your lips aren’t actually true. That was precisely the situation in which I found myself last year in Las Vegas as I was teaching a class in First-Person View (FPV) flying to a group of students at a FLYSAFE aerial photography training session.
I was telling them—as I had discussed with you on the pages of Model Aviation a year ago (April 2014, “FPV for Beginners”)—that you must possess an amateur or “ham” radio license in order to lawfully fly FPV. Today, that may not be the case.
To clarify, there haven’t been any changes in the rules that pertain to the amateur radio spectrum, output wattage restrictions, or anything like that. If you want to order a 2-watt Thunderbolt 5.8 GHz transmitter online, you’re going to need a ham radio license before you can power it up and stay on the right side of the law.
What has changed is that FPV is no longer the dark art that it was a couple of years ago when I drafted the first version of the PowerPoint presentation I was speaking from six months ago in Las Vegas.
Having realized that there is an intense demand for this capability—both for pure enjoyment and for other, more practical purposes—major, recognized brands have entered into this arena, which had been dominated up until now by nameless Chinese manufacturers more concerned about making money than whether or not their customers lawfully used their products.
Bridging the Gap
It’s always painful to admit to making a mistake, especially in front of 170,000 of your closest friends, but I should have seen this coming before I stood up to give that talk at FLYSAFE—precisely one year earlier, in fact, that was when I flew a DJI Phantom 2 Vision for the first time.
Instead of transmitting an analog National Television System Committee video signal on one specific frequency (like a conventional FPV system that requires a ham license), the Phantom 2 Vision uses a frequency-hopping Wi-Fi connection to stream video and aircraft telemetry to the pilot’s smartphone.
Now, there are some important limitations to this approach. First, and most important, it isn’t quite real time. It’s close—maybe only a half second off. But when you’re dodging trees or trying to keep up with a fast-turning sprint boat, you need real-time video. Second, there is no easy way to patch the signal through to a pair of video goggles, the signature hardware for “true” FPV.
These limitations caused me to dismiss the Phantom 2 Vision and its increasingly sophisticated successors as “FPVish.” They were close to being FPV, but they didn’t deliver every feature and capability that I thought an FPV system should, so I dismissed it as a mere toy.
What I noted at the time, but failed to fully appreciate, was that DJI had managed to deliver the fundamental capability of FPV without requiring the user to hold an amateur radio operator’s license: the ability to see what your remotely piloted aircraft is seeing.
If one thing is true of technology, it’s that after something has been achieved, it will continue to improve as each new version is released. In the fast-evolving field of sUAS, a new version is going to be released approximately every four months.
DJI has released Lightbridge, which provides the same basic functionality built into the company’s earlier models, except that it transmits full, high-definition video. It still has an issue with latency, but for a large proportion of applications such as aerial cinematography, providing overwatch for public safety operations, and remote inspection of industrial facilities, it is sufficient. Having an HD video stream is a huge bonus that conventional FPV systems will not deliver any time soon.
The day I recognized that FPV had truly gone mainstream came during a visit to a local hobby shop, when I spied the Spektrum VS1100 Ultra Micro FPV System sitting on a shelf behind the counter. The advertising promises, “Everything you need to fly FPV in one box!”
This is actually true; however, in my mind, Spektrum “buried the lead” as we say in the journalism business, by listing one key feature in tiny, six-point type on the side of the box: No FCC license required.
That’s right, you can go down to your local hobby shop right now and get everything you need to do FPV using a fixed-frequency 5.8 GHz system from a well-established, reputable manufacturer, and fly it legally without having a ham radio license. The VS1100 puts a checkmark in every box that a purist like me requires to describe it as a “real” FPV system: an analog video stream with latency that can only be measured in microseconds, and a composite video signal that can easily be patched into goggles, displays, DVRs, or anything else with an RCA jack on its side.
There is a catch, however. The camera/transmitter combo (designated the VA1100) that you receive with the VS1100 kit is very low wattage, which is how Spektrum gets around the ham licensing requirement. Incumbent to you as a citizen or legal US resident is the right to transmit radio signals below a certain strength, which varies based on the frequencies that you are using, without a license.
Spektrum dialed back the power on the VA1100 until it fell below that threshold. You won’t be setting any new long-range records with this system, but it’s a great way to get into FPV flying. If you find you like it and choose to go on and get your ham license, you can buy a new camera and more powerful video transmitter and still use everything else that came in the VS1100 kit.
As American film producer Samuel Goldwyn is said to have once quipped, “It’s dangerous to make predictions, especially about the future.” None of us can know for certain what new technology will emerge in the next six months and push back our current limitations yet again, so it’s important to stay well informed and avoid using words like “always” and “never.”
If you’re going to fly FPV, understand the capabilities and limitations of your system and be aware of any requirements, such as a ham radio license, that you must meet to lawfully operate it. This is an important moment in the evolution of this new technology, and in order for it to be able to achieve its full potential, each of us must fly in a safe, legal, and responsible manner.
DJI North America