New York City’s first drones-only retailer, Brooklyn Drones, opened in March in Gowanus, Brooklyn.
Before opening the shop, its owner, Roger Kapsalis, was a mortgage broker for commercial real estate. But a year ago, he bought a drone for his nine-year-old nephew in Greece, and decided to buy one for himself while he was at it. He started flying in his backyard in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and soon enough he was hooked. Kapsalis even ended up putting together his own drone, learning to wield a soldering iron at 44 years old.
In the first 40 days it was open, Kapsalis sold 40 drones, each between $500 and $4,000, mostly to hobbyists and professionals specializing in video and photography. At Kapsalis’ shop, unlike other online drone retailers like Amazon or one that sells other photo equipment, customers can try a flight simulator to get their bearings before taking their expensive new drone out for a spin.
Then drone owners have to know where to fly them. More people than ever are flying drones—the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) estimated that one million drones would be sold in 2015—and regulators have struggled to keep up with their quick rise to popularity. The FAA mandated that all drones be registered by February 2016, and it estimates that 325,000 people have done so.
In New York City, fliers have to follow the FAA regulations: only fly during the day, keep your drone in sight at all times, no flying within five miles of an airport, or over 400 feet high, or over stadiums, or over people without their permission (no easy feat in population-dense places like New York City). The city’s parks department has also designated five parks in which drones are permitted, the same areas in which RC airplane and helicopter hobbyists have been flying their aircraft for decades.
New York City lawmakers haven’t yet passed any rules governing drones specifically. To open a drones-only store before that happens takes “moxie,” Kapsalis admits. But he can’t deny the many applications for drones across many facets of industry. Hospitals are looking to drones to transport blood samples between facilities, thermal imaging cameras flown above buildings can show energy companies where gas leaks are happening, lifeguards can fly drones over shark-infested waters to make sure bathers stay safe.
But people have a few misconceptions about drones in practice, Kapsalis says. Flying them in a high concentration isn’t as chaotic as you might think—”We can actually create a geofence on our drones,” he says, so that they don’t fly out of a specific range, and a group of fliers will take turns so that 20 drones aren’t all flying at once. They buzz like a horde of angry bees, so it’s hard to imagine that you could use one to spy on your neighbor.
And drones aren’t as easy to fly as you might assume, either. It took Kapsalis about six months to learn how to deftly navigate his drone, which he considers fairly typical. It’s important that fliers know how to properly operate their drones, or know how to troubleshoot if things don’t go according to plan, he says. And that’s where stores like Brooklyn Drones are most useful—Kapsalis plans to offer flying classes at his shop in the near future.
For people who have just started flying drones, Kapsalis encourages them to visit the FAA’s “Know before you fly” web site, and to register their drones with the FAA. Other than that, he always gives fliers two pieces of advice: Know how to switch the drone from GPS to manual mode (in case the GPS malfunctions and threatens to fly the drone away), and always charge your batteries so your drone doesn’t fall out of the sky mid-flight.
No matter how adept he gets, Kapsalis finds it exceedingly fun to fly even the most basic drones. “It’s like real-life video games,” he says.