A year ago, Roger Kapsalis was a commercial mortgage broker. Then he bought two $70 drones from Amazon for his nephew and himself. Little did he know that he had just found himself a hobby—and the seeds of a new business idea.
In early March, he opened Brooklyn Drones, the first store in New York City that is solely dedicated to selling drones for beginners, hobbyists and professionals. Located in Brooklyn’s Gowanus neighborhood, the store sells a range of drones priced from $499 to $10,000, made by companies like Parrot, DJI, and Yuneek. The store has a range of offerings on display, but it also takes orders for upcoming upgrades and custom builds.
“I followed my passion,” says the 44-year- old Kapsalis, explaining why he saw a need to open such a store. He feels more people would get into this hobby if their questions were answered—so he set out to do just that. “One hundred people came in here asking all of these questions that I knew [the answers to],” he said in an interview inside the store. “That’s the reason I want to open this store. [Questions like:] Where can I fly? Where can’t I fly? Which one should I buy? How much should I spend?”
To cater to inquisitive customers and interested buyers, he enlisted the help of Simon Lees, a 28-year-old drone enthusiast. His brother introduced Lees to drones three years ago when he was bedridden due to a motorcycle accident. The way drones were built and how they functioned sparked his curiosity, so he started building his own from scratch.
The turning point came when he decided to get a camera for his drone. That, he says, gave him his first “visceral” drone experience. “My drone went up a 150 feet up into the air, and for the first time, I was looking at the scenery that I had seen every day of my life growing up but never from this perspective,” he said. “Everything looked so different. The sky looked so blue and the sun and the rays. I mean your jaw drops. The ‘wow’ factor is unbelievable.” Lees now has a collection of nine different drones.
Kapsalis hopes his store can drum up the same kind of excitement in customers. For that reason, all its drones have cameras attached to them.
“We’re hoping people would get into it for aerial photography and videography,” said Kapsalis, who displays his own various aerial videos and photographs on the walls of the store.
There’s more to the debate of owning drones than just cultivating a hobby, however. The unmanned aircraft system must abide by a set of laws. Many critics raise privacy and safety concerns.
Kapsalis, however, doesn’t think the concerns are merited, saying these things don’t crash. “You deliberately have to crash it or let the battery run out,” he says. “These things are intelligent enough that when you program it correctly, when your battery hits 25 percent, it comes back and lands.” The computer, he explains, takes over and ensures safe landing at that point Drones also have built-in features such as a return-to-home button that ensures the drone returns to its base. In addition, there are apps or built-in technologies to tell the pilot if the drone is headed anywhere close to off-limit areas.
Despite the advanced technology, Kapsalis and Lees stay mindful of the laws and educate every buyer on how to fly their products safely and legally. Their aim is to promote the interests of the community of drone enthusiasts.
“We are here to create a community of responsible drone pilots,” said Kapsalis. The shop’s owner and key employee dispense plenty of advice to drone novices too.
“We say that if you have never flown a drone before, the best thing to do is to go and get a small one. The little $60 dollar ones,” said Lees. “When you learn on that—you can do it in your living room, and you can practice doing circles and figurate maneuvers—that practice will transfer to [more sophisticated] drones which are always better.” The duo also sells simulators for a virtual experience of flying a drone to give new drone users a close experience of what flying a real drone would be like.
Flying one isn’t as easy as just taking it out of a box and pushing a button. Prior to the first flight of a drone, the owner must register the drone with the Federal Aviation Administration or he or she could be charged a $250,000 fee for flying an unregistered drone.
“We’re more than happy to help that person [register], if they wanted to do it here,” said Kapsalis, saying it’s an encouraged practice at his store even though there is no obligation. “[But] If someone deliberately comes in here saying I’m buying but I’m not going to register, I have every right to tell them I’m not selling it to you.”
Civilians using drones for commerce may have even more legal work ahead of them. Even using drones for recreational purposes involve a set of simpler rules: A drone cannot be heavier than 55 pounds, it should not be flown within five miles of an airport, it should not fly beyond the height of 400 feet, it should always be flown within the pilot’s line of sight and it cannot be flown near people or stadiums. If the rules are followed, drones can be safe.
“There is this misconception that someone’s going to go to their roof and fly their drone from Bay Ridge to Downtown. It doesn’t happen that way. These things are expensive. Do you think we wanna crash them? If we can’t see them anymore, we get nervous,” he said. “These aren’t devious machines.”
Drones can also prove to be ineffective for spying and surveillance due to a clear technological factor: they’re noisy. As Kapsilas and Lees fly a drone on the streets outside their shop, the drone produced enough sound to draw the attention of anybody that passed by. It’s hard not to notice it. “Everybody believes that everyone who wants to fly a drone wants to fly over the neighborhood, and that’s not it. It’s a hobby like any other!” said Kapsalis. “We’re all professionals. We’re all adults. We’re all responsible people.”
Kapsalis says that in fact, there’s a communal aspect to flying drones. “Kids can get into this because it’s better than a video game. What is better? Sitting at home with a video game or getting out in the park?”
Kapsalis knows that the business is indeed a risk, like every other business venture. Something can catch on or not. For now, it looks positive as customers are showing interest. Kapsalis recounted testing the drones for a mother who came in with her two sons in the week that the store opened. ” I think that’s going to be an upcoming birthday present,” he said. “She wanted to make sure before she laid out a thousand dollars that they like it. But they’re coming back.”