A frequent topic of discussion in APRS-related circles is: "Does a control operator need to babysit a tracker, or may it be sent off on its own." The short answer per FCC rules is no, it does not have to be babysat and may be operated even where a control operator cannot immediately lay hands on the unit.
A careful reading of the rules (along with some understanding of how the rules are applied to different situations) will reveal the answer. While it is not as straightforward as one would think, it is not difficult to determine the correct answer for a given set of circumstances.
This has been a hot subject for years on APRSSIG. While we always advocate for individuals to read the rules and make up their own mind about what the FCC requires as it's your license on the line, we hope the contents of this wiki article will help guide you in your decision.
The first and most important indicator is that unattended trackers have been around for a dozen years. Every day hundreds if not thousands of these devices transmit. The FCC is very aware of their existence, yet not a single action has been taken by the FCC.
A more detailed answer:
It depends a bit on how the station is set up.
- If the person(s) accompanying the tracker cannot change any parameter of the transmitter other than power on/off, then you're within the FCC rules. Enclosing the transmitter or transceiver inside another box so that no controls were available, or "locking" the radio so that nobody can mess with the settings, should steer you clear of possible violations. Unsure about that power on/off switch thing? Look up the "N1547C tracker" thread on APRSSIG.
- If the person can change the power level, modulation method frequency, or grab a microphone and "play around", then you'd be in violation of the rules if that person exercised any of that control.
- A completely unattended tracker or digipeater is within the rules as well.
- A control operator must be able to exercise that control over the device, but there's nothing in the rules that specifies the time lag allowed to exercise that control. Also, the control operator can talk to an unlicensed person who has physical access to the tracker to tell them to turn the device ON or OFF. This command from the control operator to an unlicensed person may be done over telephone, megaphone, cell-phone, FRS, GMRS, CB, what-have-you.
Please see the thread titled "Re: Newbie Questions, is Ham license required?" from the TinyTrak list that occurred on October 9th, 2007. One could also peruse the APRSSIG mailing list and find threads at least twice a year that cover this issue.
People who have not studied the FCC rules tend to think that you need a licensed amateur to actually be with the APRS tracker.
Here's a favorite
A quote by Riley Hollingsworth, the main FCC guy that would come after you if you did something wrong:
The FCC defines "automatic control" in section 97.3(a)(6) as: "The use of devices and procedures for control of a station when it is transmitting so that compliance with the FCC Rules is achieved without the control operator being present at a control point."
Another good discussion on the matter: [http://lists.tapr.org/pipermail/aprssig/2004-November/001620.html]
Examine the FCC rules for yourself, in particular pay attention to sections about "automatic control", "beacons", "control operator", and "control point".
A quote from an official observer in 1996:
From: Mike Musick To: <email@example.com> Subject: Re: Question on beacons Steve writes: > I note that people are using beacons which transmit from an > unattended situation. Do the FCC regulations now allow one > to transmit in this manner, without a station operator present > nor a supervisory remote control link? Yes, and the answer is: 97.221 Automatically controlled digital station. (b) A station may be automatically controlled while transmitting a RTTY or data emission on the 6m or shorter wavelength bands, and on... [numerous HF segments]. and: 97.109 Station control. (d) When a station is being automatically controlled, the control operator need not be at the control point. ...[qualified station types, which includes the above] So we're covered. ...mike/N0QBF (Official Observer)
Don't ask the FCC!
This one is hilarious, but probably 100% true. It suggests asking Dan Henderson at ARRL such questions instead of asking the FCC directly. It explains why: