Feds Shoot Down Beer Delivery by Drone

It seemed like a foolproof business model, but the FAA says it’s illegal.

National Journal
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Alex Brown
Jan. 30, 2014, 9:22 a.m.

It seemed like the per­fect plan. Take thirsty ice fish­er­men, bring them beer with a drone, and watch the profits roll in. But un­for­tu­nately for Wis­con­sin’s Lake­maid Beer, Uncle Sam thought oth­er­wise.

Lake­maid — a beer co-owned by a brew­ery and fish­ing-lure com­pany — was hop­ing to bol­ster its stand­ing with its tar­get demo­graph­ic this Sat­urday, dis­patch­ing a drone to a Min­nesota lake to bring six-packs to ice fish­er­men. But then the FAA got wind of the plan.

“Yes­ter­day and the day be­fore we’ve had calls from the FAA,” said Lake­maid Pres­id­ent Jack Supple. The agency in­formed him the de­liv­ery op­er­a­tion vi­ol­ated its ban on us­ing drones for com­mer­cial pur­poses. Though Lake­maid didn’t plan to charge for its test run, the pub­li­city garnered from the de­liv­er­ies still qual­i­fies them as com­mer­cial use.

The com­pany hatched the plan after see­ing Amazon’s drone-de­liv­ery scheme late last year. And while that concept has a long way to go, Lake­maid saw frozen lakes as the best op­por­tun­ity to put drones in­to ac­tion. “It seems to me to be the per­fect place to try this as op­posed to boun­cing off lamp­posts and church steeples in the city,” Supple said. “[The lake] looks like a drone air­port.”

An ini­tial test used a smal­ler drone — not cap­able of car­ry­ing a full six-pack — guided only by the pi­lot’s line of site. But after the video of that run took off on so­cial me­dia, the com­pany de­cided to go big­ger. “Our core audi­ence is very ready for this tech­no­logy,” Supple said. They pur­chased an eight-pro­peller drone, able to carry a six-pack up to a half-mile and hone in on GPS co­ordin­ates provided by thirsty fish­er­men.

Everything was ready to go for Sat­urday’s de­liv­er­ies — un­til the FAA stepped in. “They were nice about it,” Supple ad­mit­ted. “It wasn’t like they were go­ing to put me in jail.” But the thick list of drone reg­u­la­tions the agency provided “will be a good week­end of read­ing,” a far cry from his ini­tial beer-fly­ing plans.

FAA will set new drone rules in 2015, and Supple is op­tim­ist­ic his op­er­a­tion will be leg­al­ized, es­pe­cially giv­en the pos­it­ive re­sponse from con­sumers. But that’s little con­sol­a­tion this year. “I might be out of the drone busi­ness for a while,” he sighed. “For now, they’re just go­ing to have to go the store and get the beer.”