Brooklyn Lands a Drone Store

Brooklyn’s newest specialty shop caters to a very specific clientele: drone enthusiasts.

Brooklyn Drones NYC opens as the popularity of the unmanned aircraft continues to soar—in fact, its launch this weekend coincides with the second annual New York City Drone Film Festival and events at Jersey City’s Liberty Science Center.

Owner Roger Kapsalis, 44 years old, of Bay Ridge, a former commercial mortgage broker and stockbroker, is among the growing number of hobbyists who picked up a drone in recent years and was hooked. “I found out I had a knack for aerial photography,” he said.

Mr. Kapsalis and a silent partner/investor signed a 10-year lease on the space in Gowanus on the edge of Park Slope, he said, where they will sell drones ranging from $500 to $10,000. He is banking on customers wanting to test out drones before they buy and ask questions of experts, instead of purchasing online or at electronics stores.

“It’s like buying a car online for your first time,” he said. “Would you do it?”

The shop opens at a time of immense growth in the sale of drones. U.S. sales are expected to top 2.8 million in 2016, according to the Consumer Technology Association. Wholesale revenue from sales of drones weighing more than a half pound is projected to reach $827 million, up from an estimated $388 million in 2015.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which requires that recreational users register their drones, estimates that about a half million unmanned aircraft weighing more than a half pound have been registered.

Mr. Kapsalis unboxing a drone.ENLARGE

But where all of these drones can be flown is a source of contention. The National Conference of State Legislatures is tracking 17 pieces of legislation regarding unmanned aircraft in New York state, according to a policy associate at the organization.

FAA rules bar recreational flying near people or stadiums, or within 5 miles of an airport without informing a control tower. The New York City Parks Department limits drone use to designated areas in five parks.

Some drone operators have run afoul of rules in high-profile cases. A drone flew into the stands of the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament, and another crashed into the Empire State Building. (The NYPD said it doesn’t keep track of drone incidents.)

“The unfettered use of drones in New York City has significant implications both for safety and privacy, and we need to get a handle on it before we lose control of the situation,” said New York City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who has sponsored legislation to further regulate drones.

Employee Simon Lees test-flying a drone.ENLARGE
Employee Simon Lees test-flying a drone. PHOTO: PEARL GABEL FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Despite the controversy, drones are having a moment. This weekend marks the second annual New York City Drone Film Festival, with screenings Saturday at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on West 57th Street. On Sunday, the festival and Liberty Science Center in Jersey City have teamed up to offer the science center’s first Day of Drones.

“I like the fact that there’s this new form of technology, you can build it yourself if you really get into it, and it reveals the world in a way we haven’t been able to experience up to now,” said Liberty Science Center President and CEO Paul Hoffman.

Mr. Kapsalis, whose family ran a luncheonette in Sheepshead Bay for more than 20 years, saw an opportunity to create a niche business. His plans include space in the backyard for test flights, and repair services, because the devices occasionally crash.

Other drone companies around the country have had success with physical stores. Expert Drones, which has stores in Houston, Virginia and Arizona, plans to open an outpost this year at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus, according to Brett Velicovich, a managing partner.

While Expert Drones loses customers to lower prices online, Mr. Velicovich said, some people prefer talking to experienced users.


The new Phantom 4 drone from DJI keeps pilots from getting into crashes with computer vision that can sense and avoid obstacles including trees, buildings and people. WSJ Personal Tech columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler takes it for a test flight, including a head-on game of chicken.

“If I’m going to spend $1,000 or $5,000 on a drone, I have people that can help me out if I have a problem,” he said.

Simon Lees, 28, Brooklyn Drone NYC’s only employee, fielded questions from a FedEx deliveryman who arrived recently with a shipment of DJI Inspire drones. “How high can you fly this?” he asked. “How far?”

Mr. Lees is an actor-producer-director who said he started to look for a drone store shortly after moving to Brooklyn from Los Angeles. He found Brooklyn Drones through Google. “If you’re into it, it’s the only thing,” he said. “It’s better than videogames.”

Mr. Kapsalis said he would like to see more places for enthusiasts to fly drones and congregate. “This is a technology that’s not going anywhere, and it should be embraced and people should be educated how to fly legally and safe,” he said.

He stood in his work area on a recent day with a freshly unboxed DJI Inspire drone and watched an instructional YouTube video on how to attach its camera. Once the camera was in place, he stopped to admire the four-legged object in front of him.

“How beautiful is that,” he remarked.