Lakemaid Beer, a Minnesota brewery, has been doing a great service for ice fishermen: it’s been delivering them beer — by drone. The fishermen (and women) stay in shacks on Mille Lacs Lake, and given where they are and what they’re doing, I’m guessing it’s pretty darn easy to run out of beer. But there aren’t any liquor stores nearby, so what are thirsty fishermen to do? Well, they call up Lakemaid, give the brewery their coordinates, and order some beer for delivery. Way to show Amazon how it’s done!
Sadly, the FAA caught wind of the operation after Lakemaid uploaded the video below, which went viral almost immediately, and shut down the operation. The FAA currently doesn’t have rules and regulations in place to govern commercial drones, which is why Amazon, among others, has publicized the idea but hasn’t done much more. The FAA plans on releasing the legislation sometime around 2015, but it might take a couple years beyond that before we actually see commercial drones making deliveries. Right now, only hobbyists can fly drones, and the drones have to be small (less than 55 pounds). Those drones can’t be for profit, and the amateur pilots can only fly them over non-populated areas.
But those restrictions are being challenged. Brendan Schulman, a lawyer from New York, thinks that the FAA doesn’t actually have the authority to ground Lakemaid’s drones, or drones like it. Schulman has filed suit against the FAA on behalf of a Virginia client who got smacked with a $10,000 fine for flying a small drone around the campus of the University of Virginia to collect footage for a commercial (a commercial which, incidentally, never got made). The incident happened in 2011 and was the first fine levied by the FAA against someone using a commercial drone. Schulman argues that the point of the FAA and its regulations is to protect the safety of people and passengers in the air — in other words, the FAA should focus on governing manned aircraft, not unmanned ones.
In 2007, the FAA forbid commercial use of drones, and Schulman is arguing that that prohibition is outside of the scope of the FAA, especially because there was no public input. He’s also arguing that, even if the FAA has that authority, the airspace it’s supposed to be regulating isn’t the kind of airspace these small drones occupy, given that they’re so far from airplanes, airports, and other “navigable airspace.” One of the inconsistencies central to the case is that hobbyists can fly drones while adhering to certain regulations, but if any money changes hands, those regulations cease to apply and the drone suddenly becomes illegal.
If something bad should happen, Schulman says, like in the UK case where a model plane accidentally killed a girl, then a civil suit could be filed. But in the case of Lakemaid, Schulman believes no laws have been broken, especially given that it operated drones in a remote area and within the parameters of the laws established by the FAA. When it comes to Amazon, though, Schulman admits that it might be more complicated because of the urban areas on Amazon’s routes: “You have to think about power lines… neighbor’s dogs. There are going to be technical challenges, so that may require more regulatory thinking,” he said. But when it comes to ice fishermen, send in the drones.