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Beer Drone Can Buzz The Skies No More, FAA Says

Lakemaid Beer is brewed in Stevens Point, Wis., and distributed to several states in the region. But it was a very local delivery that put the company out of favor with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The Minnesota-based company is receiving a flood of support and condolences after the FAA ruled that its beer delivery drone, which had only recently taken flight, had to be shut down.

Lakemaid calls itself the fishermen's lager. It had hoped to use drones to deliver its beer to anglers in thousands of ice shacks, from the frozen northern lakes' combination bait and beer shops. But the government says the brewer's next test — which Lakemaid managing partner Jack Supple says was tentatively set for Minnesota's Lake Mille Lacs and the Twin Pines resort — cannot proceed.

"We were a little surprised at the FAA interest in this since we thought we were operating under the 400-foot limit," Supple says via email. He adds that the beer-makers "figured a vast frozen lake was a lot safer place than [what] Amazon was showing on 60 Minutes."

The brewery's test flight created a stir after it was posted on YouTube last week, capturing imaginations and, in some cases, leading people to say they no longer fear a future in which the sky buzzes with drones.

In December, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gave 60 Minutes a preview of his company's plan to use drones to move to same-day local delivery in the next several years. In an interview last week, Supple said Lakemaid's drone plans had advantages over Amazon's — particularly the flat landscape of a frozen lake and the fairly uniform height of the ice shacks.

But as we discussed after the Amazon report aired, FAA rules don't currently allow drones to be used for commercial delivery — and it eventually emerged that the test video Bezos showed was actually filmed outside the U.S., for legal reasons. The agency has scheduled reviews of its rules on drones.

Supple says the FAA got in touch to let Lakemaid know its plan broke four — and possibly five — regulations, ranging from the operator's rating to the use of airspace. And that's too bad, he says, because he had big plans.

"My intent was to try a larger drone that could fly unmanned, based on just the coordinates" of an ice shack, he says. And the Twin Pines resort "has fish houses out in the bay probably half a mile. So a little longer stretch than we first tested."

Drones have been used to deliver beer before — notably at a music festival in South Africa. But the federal agency said it's a no-go in U.S. airspace.

"The FAA controls the safety of our airspace all the way to ground level, according to the calls I got from the local inspector and the regional supervisor this week," Supple says.

In an email, the agency told Lakemaid that it "recognizes that people and companies other than modelers might be flying UAS with the mistaken understanding" that their actions are legal. But the rules and guidelines used in such cases apply only to people flying model airplanes, the FAA added.

After word of the FAA's intervention came out, a White House petition was begun to try to get the agency to allow the brewery's beers to get airborne again.

Supply says Lakemaid is figuring out what its next steps are. But he admits that in hindsight, he can see the FAA's point.

"I understand their concern," he says. "Drones whizzing around piloted by any knucklehead is probably not the Jetsons future we all imagined."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.