Do you need a HAM radio license to fly FPV?
Yes. To fly legally, you need an amateur radio license. The first-tier license, Technician, should cover everything you need to fly FPV legally with respect to FCC laws in the United States.
More specifically, if you are using a product that is not FCC Part 15 compliant, you will need a amateur radio license. In general, almost no components that we use for radio / video transmitting in drone racing are Part 15 compliant, and will require you to have a license to operate legally. While a DJI Mavic or Phantom may be compliant, your custom built racer likely won’t be. Usually, the FCC logo is printed on a product to show compliance.
How do I get an amateur radio license?
Pass a 35-question multiple choice test. These questions are pulled from a test bank of 426 questions.
Preparation: Is getting a HAM radio license difficult?
Not really. There are a few ways that you can approach the test.
Option 1: Learn the information and take the test.
The option I figure most used is simply learning the information, be it from a class or studying material online, and taking the test. This will obviously give you a much more thorough overview of the material and allow you to actually learn something.
Option 2: Download the test answer bank and study it.
Back in high school, I had a Physics teacher offer extra credit to anyone who could pass the HAM radio license test. At a hefty reward of bumping your lowest test up a full letter grade for each license earned, I figured I would look into how difficult it would be to pass these tests.
A little bit of searching revealed that these tests used a bank of questions and answers that were available to the public. I went to a local HAM radio business and picked up the test question bank books for the first two licensing tiers. I also picked up a schedule from these folks on when the next test would be held. As luck would have it, the next testing time available was less than 72 hours away! I figured, what the hell, I’ll read through the questions and answers a few times and give it a shot.
Long story short, I passed the test.
I repeated the same process for the next testing level a few weeks later, and again passed the test.
This wasn’t some tremendous feat in memorization; the test and questions are relatively simple. Similarly, I wasn’t aiming for 100% – just passing and getting the proof of completion. However, it is safe to say that I learned nothing in the process using this method.
Where can you take the test?
The ARRL has a great tool for finding test locations near you. Check out this link to find an upcoming test near you.
Myths / questions / other notes:
What level license do I need?
Technician class (first level) should cover you for everything you would need to fly FPV legally in the eyes of the FCC
Who / what runs these things?
The National Association for Amateur Radio (ARRL) is going to be your main point of reference for everything you need.
Do I need to learn Morse code?
Nope, this used to be a requirement way back in the day, but no more!
How much should I plan to spend on getting licensed?
Depends. At minimum, $15 to take the test and whatever it costs you to drive/travel to a testing location. More if you register to take a class or buy physical study materials.
Do I need to buy / bring a HAM radio to practice or take the test?
Nope, the test is multiple choice drawing from a test bank of questions. You do not need to demonstrate radio use, nor show ownership of one. I have been licensed for over a decade and never touched a HAM radio.
What should I bring to the test?
The ARRL covers this specifically here! Basically what you would bring to an SAT type test: ID, SSN, and some pencils! Oh, also money to cover the cost of the test!
Is this the only license I need to fly legally?
For the FCC that should do it. You still technically would be out of compliance with the FAA if your drone is not registered. See our articles on legality here.
How long does the license last?
Ten years, but the licenses can be renewed without retesting. When my license was due to expire, I received a postcard with information on renewing my license. I would make a note somewhere to remember to renew or notify the ARRL in case of change of address.
But…do I really need it?
I put this near the end of the article, as I wanted to cover the necessary reading first. I imagine there will be some dissenting opinions on how necessary this licensing is. If you ask around, most pilots will likely tell you that they don’t have an amateur radio license and don’t feel it is necessary for flight. They will argue that enforcement is rare, and that you are unlikely to ever have a problem.
For the most part, they are absolutely right.
The FCC is likely not going to come to your house and break down the door the moment you turn on your VTX. You probably aren’t going to cause massive interference that takes out communication systems in your area if you follow our buyers guides. Like the FAA and flying around airports, if you aren’t doing something absolutely stupid, you will probably be OK. I did mention I am not a lawyer though, right?
In a lot of ways it comes down to location. If you live and fly out in the desert, or other rural area, there is next to no chance you will cause any issues that will get the FCC crawling around. Similarly, testing locations may be few and far between out in the backwoods, thus making getting a license much more difficult than it is worth. Conversely, flying in a crowded city or suburbia with a ton of antennas may expose you to more risk. That said, testing locations should be closer and much easier to find in these areas.
However, as the hobby continues to expand, and our gear continues to improve and get more powerful, covering yourself is the smart choice in my mind. So instead of arguing why you do or don’t need it, I would rather present some thoughts on why you should consider getting licensed.
It’s easy to pass the test, cheap, and the license lasts a crazy amount of time.
You could probably spend a few evenings working through the test bank, take the test, and pass. In the process, you will probably learn some relevant details pertaining to FPV. The licensing time is more or less a lifetime license (assuming you renew it after 10 years) at a $15 test cost.
It might save you from stricter or time sensitive requirements later.
We have heard rumblings that as drone racing organizations continue to grow, the requirements pilots are supposed to follow may be more policed. This means FAA registration, AMA membership, and FCC licensing, may be required for you to step up to the starting line at an event. Getting a jump on these things now may help prevent you getting stuck in a hard place leading up to an event later. It would suck to not participate in a local race because you are waiting for a test date to get your amateur radio license.
It could be an introduction into another fun hobby.
I could see the same tinkering and tech savvy people into drones also appreciating similar aspects of radio technology. You might find yourself with another new hobby after getting licensed. There are countless people across the globe operating amateur radio equipment that you can speak with. Similarly, you may have heard that you can communicate with the ISS via amateur radio. It is an old, but still very active community of hobbyists around the world.
One final thought…
We expect people to respect our drones when we fly. We should treat HAMs the same way. Recently, the ARRL has submitted complaints to the FCC due to the potential interference of some new FPV video transmitters on the market. The FCC and ARRL have a long history, and this complaint likely won’t be taken lightly. Be careful when selecting your gear that it is not causing interference that could bring negative attention to your flying. Similarly, if enough complaints are filed in the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the FCC step in and increase regulation. Food for thought.
References, further reading, and other threads
As with any part of this hobby, do your own due diligence. For your convenience, we have put together a list of articles, threads, and research that you can use to further educate yourself.
HamStudy – Propwashed Recommended (Free Online). A great study resource for all your needs. It has references to study materials, test prep, flash cards, and everything else you could want! Thanks to Michael for sending us a link on this!
Technician Class License Test Bank (Online). This is the full test bank of questions for the Technician level test. You could memorize this and take the test.
Technician class study guide (Online / PDF). A study guide of terminology and information you need for the Technician test.
Technician Class License Test Bank / Study Guide (Amazon) Propwashed Recommended (Physical). This is the series put out by the ARRL, and is similar to what I used to pass the test a decade ago. If your budget for getting the license is more than the $15 test cost, go with this to make your life easier. Do note that the paperback version is likely time sensitive if the test bank or requirements change.
RC community threads on the importance of licensing: