A robot used to covertly transmit live video during military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan was approved by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for use by local and state firefighters and police, ending a legal battle between amateur radio operators and law enforcement over the device.
Called the Recon Scout Throwbot, the robot transmits over the 430-448 MHz portion of the 420-450 MHz frequency band, which is primarily used by the federal radiolocation service. The spectrum is also utilized by amateur radio enthusiasts. The latter group, spearheaded by the American Radio Relay League (ARRL), opposed a waiver request filed with the FCC by Recon Scout maker ReconRobotics Inc. to use the band.
The ARRL argued that ReconRobotics’ claims that the device would be useful in public safety and anti-terrorism operations didn’t prove that a waiver to use the frequency bands was in the public interest. The FCC admitted, in its order approving the waiver, that while some interference in the frequency bands may occur, it isn’t a reason to prohibit the use of the Recon Scout.
The FCC approval does come with some limitations, however. The robot can only be used by state and local police and firefighters on the specific band. Operators must also first use the Recon Scout on 436-442 MHz bands. If those frequencies are inaccessible, then the 430-436 MHz and 442-448 MHz bands — where interference is more likely — can be accessed.
In a subsequent Order on Reconsideration released April 15, the FCC granted the ARRL’s request for changes in the labeling and instruction manual requirements to ensure that users of the Recon Scout are aware of the interference limitations.
Use of the device is also limited to emergencies involving threats to the safety of life and training purposes. In addition, the Recon Scout is restricted from use near various radar installations and Air Force bases, and the amount of units that can be sold is limited to 2,000 the first year and 8,000 the second year. After that period of time, future sales will be re-evaluated, according to the FCC.
The Recon Scout measures eight inches long and weighs 1.2 pounds. Aimee Barmore, director of North American sales for ReconRobotics, said federal agencies that have been using the robot are looking at it as a life-saving tool, particularly during hostage situations.
“It really helps save [agencies] time and money because … it’s extremely durable,” she said. “You throw it up into a window and get eyes on the inside in a stealthy manner … without risking the lives of officers.”
Barmore added that while the Recon Scout is not individually customizable, a number of different versions of the robot exist. The price for each system ranges from $4,800 to $13,000 depending on the type.
Law enforcement agencies had been previously testing the Recon Scout in training missions. In one support letter to the FCC from the Mid-Missouri Multi Jurisdictional Drug Task Force in 2008, Special Agent Darin E. Logue talked about the device’s uncanny ability to go undetected during a drill.
Logue explained that the Recon Scout was deployed and did a thorough threat assessment for the entry team, all before entry, confirming the location and number of suspects, including identifying weaponry.
“Following a successful apprehension, ‘roll players/suspects’ advised that although they were expecting the deployment of the robot, they were never really aware of its location in the house,” Logue said.
A video describing the Recon Scout is available here.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.