You can send it into buildings where hostages are being held, then move it from room to room as it transmits video via its miniature camera. Sleek and unobtrusive, the gadget can slip under furniture and roll down stairs. Only eight inches long and 1.2 pounds, it can be tossed through windows or onto burning roofs without sustaining damage.
Used in Iraq and Afghanistan for several years now, the Recon Scout Throwbot could be of great use to domestic police and fire departments, but there's one thing the little machine can't do—apply for a spectrum use waiver from the Federal Communications Commission. Without that waiver, the bot can't transmit its live video feed.
Thanks to the law firm of Fletcher, Heald, and Hildreth, however, bot maker Recon Robotics has just obtained such a waiver and may now bring the Throwbot to local law enforcement.
"Typical applications will include checking a building prior to forced entry; searching vehicle undercarriages for explosives; locating hostages, hostiles, officers, and bystanders before a rescue attempt; and searching for survivors in a burning building," the FCC noted in the waiver of various portions of its Part 90 private land and mobile radio service rules. "The Recon Scout is used overseas by the US armed forces, and is credited with saving lives."
But the approval has created controversy, pitting law enforcement groups against amateur radio operators who might operate in the same spectrum.
Please let us save ourselves
The permit was needed to allow the Throwbot to broadcast video data in the 430-448MHz zone of the 420-450MHz band. That spectrum goes primarily to the Federal Radiolocation service (radar), then secondarily to amateur services. Potential interference with those uses is the issue here.
As you might suspect, quite a number of police agencies sent comments to the FCC asking the Commission to approve the device. Here is an excerpt from the Ludlow, Illinois police department's missive to the FCC:
As a Police Officer and a Trainer, I feel compelled to remind you that we do a very dangerous job and usually no one cares how many of us are hurt or killed as long as no innocent victims are hurt or killed. They give us an elaborate funeral and call us heroes for a week. Then we are forgotten. This is apparent in almost all Department Policy Manuals in one policy or another. We are the ones that are required to run into a building under fire to protect the innocent. I feel that it is everyone's responsibility to approve any life saving tool that can keep us safe as we are rushing in under fire. . . . Please allow us to save ourselves in other ways. Please allow the waiver for multiple frequencies to allow us to go home to our families and friends just as anyone else would deserve.
On the other hand, the American Radio Relay League pretty much threw the book at Recon's request in its response to the request. The ARRL's opposition filing charged that the petition was vague, lacked appropriate technical specifications, and did not explore the possibility of using other frequencies for the gadget.
"The Petitioner asserts, without establishing, that there is a market for these devices for public safety and anti-terrorism efforts," ARRL wrote. "Merely by suggesting that these devices may be potentially useful in this context does not establish that a permanent waiver for the devices will be in the public interest. Most importantly, it is not satisfactorily established why alternatives are inadequate."
But the Commission decided that given the relative rarity with which these robots will be used, their employ in the 436-442MHz bands is acceptable The order concedes that interference in the 430-436MHz and 442-448MHz bands will become somewhat more likely, and it therefore stipulates that these bands be accessed only when the 436-442MHz region can't.
Among other conditions for the waiver—only state and local police and firefighters can access the device on the stipulated bands.
Second, the Recon Scout "may be used only during actual emergencies involving threats to safety of life, and for necessary training related to such operations. Security personnel in critical infrastructure industries may operate the Recon Scout only in areas that are environmentally hazardous for entry by human personnel, and for necessary training related to such operations."
Third, the Scout can't be used too near a list of Air Force/radar bases, among them Beale, Cape Cod, Clear, Cavalier, and Eglin.
Fourth, in the first year of equipment approval, only 2,000 units can be sold, going up to 8,000 during the second year. "Future sales of the Recon Scout will be reconsidered at the end of this period," the FCC notes.
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