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Drone Delivery: What's Good for Amazon is Illegal for You

Lakemaid Beer, after posting a YouTube video demonstrating beer delivery via drone, gets slapped by the Federal Aviation Administration.
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Of all the commercial uses one can think of for drones, beer delivery to ice fishermen might not be the first. "It's not a problem that has been really rampant among ice fishermen," says Jack Supple, the president of Lakemaid Beer and the chief creative officer of Minneapolis marketing agency Pocket Hercules. "They know how to put beer in their trucks and drive it out there."

Still, Supple thought that having drones deliver beer would be a fun way to promote the debut of Lakemaid's seasonal winter lager, and ice fisherman might order beer via drone just for the sheer entertainment value. Borrowing a director, cameraman and talent from his marketing company, Supple produced a short video showing ice fishermen entering their GPS coordinates into a smart phone and being rewarded with a drone-delivered 12-pack.

About two weeks ago, he posted the video to his company's Facebook page, Vimeo, and YouTube, and as he says, "All hell broke loose." Things didn't get even a teeny bit quieter when the Federal Aviation Administration contacted Supple and told him to knock it off--drones aren't allowed to be used for commercial purposes. Supple spoke with Inc Editor-at-Large Kimberly Weisul about why frozen lakes are perfect for drones, Amazon.com, and, of course, beer. Here's an edited version of that conversation:

First, how did you get into the beer business? You run a marketing agency, right?

One of our clients is Rapala, a maker of fishing lures. In 2008, we were working on ideas for Rapala and this idea of Lakemaid fell out of the process. We figured there had to have been mermaids that made it into freshwater. We decided that would be perfect for a beer.

Rapala's not in the beer business, so we went into the beer business. We do contract brewing. We manage the brand, the distribution, sales and marketing, and worry about the pricing. We hired a group to handle shipping and taxes. We'll probably do 50,000 cases this year. That's reasonable. We're starting to make some money.

How did you get the idea to deliver beer via drone?

We saw the Amazon clip on 60 Minutes and thought it would be easier to do deliveries on a frozen lake with just ice houses on it if we used a drone. There is nothing in the way. There are no tall buildings or trees or powerlines.

We went to Lake Waconia and set up the drone. The guy at the bait store set it down on the deck and it lifted off. It flew perfectly to the fish house.

Wind is not kind to drones. Our next move was to test a larger drone that would more easily handle a 12-pack. We were going to test on Lake Mille Lacs and we got shut down.

Shut down? They didn't shut down your business, did they?

No, they just told us we couldn't fly the drone.

I thought, because the drone was below 400 feet in altitude, that we were fine. And it was just a demonstration. They claimed we were benefitting commercially from exposure on YouTube, and that it is a violation.

What about Amazon? They certainly benefitted from the exposure of being on 60 Minutes.

I asked them that. How can Amazon do that on 60 Minutes and I can't do it on a little beer web site on YouTube? He just said well, it's technically a commercial use.

We have been getting our Amazon's worth, because he was nice enough to shut us down.

Are you still planning to deliver beer via drone?

We created this video and we got a lot of attention. That got us in the national spotlight. We've decided to keep going.

Our plan is to keep pushing but not to receive the certified letter, which is apparently what drone operators fear. When the letter comes, your drone operations are shut down not only for now, but when the regulations come out.

What we can do is set up drone ports. Those are the places the drones will fly out of when they're regulated. We'll work with retailers. It has to be a good Lakemaid retailer that's been with us from the beginning and is excited. Then it has to be lakeside, so the drone doesn't have to fly across towns.

Twin Pines Resort on the west side of Milles Lac has been a great retailer. We built a drone landing pad, and I'm going to take it over there this weekend.

When do you expect you will be delivering beer this way?

The guy I spoke to at the FAA was saying spring 2015. But in subsequent interviews, the FAA is saying it might happen this year.

Pocket Hercules is a 22-person agency. Could you do this if you were running a larger firm?

That's why this is a lot of fun. We're small and we have a lot of experience, so we do what we think we ought to do. There's no large holding company wondering why we're flying beer around.

Last updated: Feb 6, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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