Injustice! FAA crackdown on beer-delivery drone may be based on hot air

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration jumped into action after Minnesota brewery Lakemaid published a video on YouTube showing the company delivering cases of beer to ice fisherman, and promptly put an end to the futuristic beer run. See, according to the FAA, using a drone for “commercial” purposes (like selling and delivering beer) is against the rules, unless the company has the FAA’s permission … which is nearly impossible to get.

Thing is, the FAA’s rules against unauthorized commercial drone use may not be legal binding – meaning Lakemaid and countless other companies that want to use unmanned aerial vehicles (aka UAVs or drones) as part of their business operations should, theoretically, be able to do so – and the FAA can’t say a dang thing about it.

At least, that’s Washington, DC-based attorney Brendan Schulman’s argument. Schulman is representing Raphael Pirker, an Swiss videographer and major drone enthusiast, who was fined $10,000 by the FAA in 2011 for shooting a video for the University of Virginia using a camera-packing drone.

“The FAA was created to address the problem of airplanes running into each other after two airplanes collided over the Grand Canyon,” Schulman recently told Forbes. “That was the main issue for the FAA: ensuring the safety of people in the air, passenger aircraft, and manned aviation, not the regulation of small unmanned aircraft.”

“The FAA was created to address the problem of airplanes running into each other…”

At present, FAA rules dictate that any company that wants to use drones for commercial purposes obtain a “Certificate of Authorization,” among other restrictions. (Only flying drones below 400 feet and keeping them in the line of sight are the two big ones.) And while universities and police departments can get the needed certificate, private companies are all but shut out; only one company, ConocoPhillips, has obtained a Certificate of Authorization. It may only fly its drone, a Boeing Insitu ScanEagle, to monitor wildlife off the coast of Alaska. Try to fly a drone to make some money, and you could be hit with a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA … or a whopping fine.

Except, Pirker was not fined for flying his drone for commercial purposes, reports Politico. Instead, he was fined for “careless and reckless operation of the unmanned aircraft.” So, while the FAA might have a rule against unapproved commercial drone flight, those rules might not mean much if it comes to a court battle – which is exactly what Schulman is trying to prove. He has already argued his case before the National Transportation Safety Board, and says he expects the judge to dismiss the fine and the legally binding authority of the FAA’s rules along with it. If that happens, it’s possible that Lakemaid can deliver its beer to thirsty ice fisherman in peace.

But something tells us the FAA won’t make it that simple. The agency is currently working hard to clear up the regulations surrounding drones, and establish basic safety measures for pilots and the public, as mandated by a bill passed by Congress in 2012, which requires the FAA open U.S. airspace to commercial drones by September 30, 2015. And it recently announced the opening of six drone test sites around the country to help figure out all the ins and outs of our new drone-filled future.

Should Lakemaid be allowed to make beer deliveries with drones? Let us know your thoughts below.

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