NYC’s first drone retailer opening in Gowanus; prompts forum on ethics of drone use

Will first NYC drone store mean new retail, new regulations?

January 20, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Brooklyn Eagle captures a photo of a drone that was caught peering into a Brooklyn Heights high-rise this past August. Eagle photo by Mary Frost
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Breathtaking, never-before-seen aerial views of the city are normally only afforded to passengers on planes and those fortunate enough to live or work in skyscrapers.  

Roger Kapsalis, however, is in the process of making those spectacular scenes attainable for Brooklynites everywhere. Next month, the 44-year-old Bay Ridge resident is opening Brooklyn Drones NYC, New York City’s first exclusive drone retailer, in the borough.

“I’ve been in finance for the last 24 years, and I’ve finally found something that I can enjoy doing in life,” Kapsalis told the Brooklyn Eagle. “It’s a passion. It’s a hobby that I think I can monetize and there’s a need for a drone-specific store.

“I [am proud] that we’re going to be the first store that is drone-specific, and I’m excited to build a community around it,” he added.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) or aircrafts. With no human pilot aboard, these devices are generally manipulated by the remote control of a user on the ground or by an onboard computer, which can control more advanced drones independently.

“The first time I picked up a drone was about a year ago, and I was automatically consumed with the experience of being able to have a first-person view of the sky,” said Kapsalis. “I immediately started picking up aerial photography as a hobby.

“Anybody I fly with feels the same exact passion. It’s a new point of view that we just haven’t seen before.”

Brooklynites will be able to share Kapsalis’ “passion” beginning Feb. 15, when the 1,250-square-foot store at 315 Fourth Ave. is set to open its doors.   

Brooklyn Drones NYC — technically in Gowanus and bordering Park Slope — will sell a variety of drones ranging from $150 to $10,000.

Kapsalis said that a “good hobby drone” will range from $600 to $1,200.

“People can come in and see the products and talk with experts who can help make a decision on what kind of drone you should buy, whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or professional,” said Kapsalis.  

Drones that cost around $10,000 are used in the film industry to carry heavy film equipment and are aptly named “heavy-lift drones.”

These durable devices can carry up to 55 pounds.

Paul Callahan, a director at Greenpoint-based Southgate Films, frequently works with heavy-lift drones.

“It was challenging and took a lot of time to learn how to use heavy-lift drones,” Callahan told the Eagle. “At first, there was just a 50-page manual in broken English, and you had to teach yourself. It took me a year to get comfortable.”

Novice drone operators should not use heavy-lift drones, according to Callahan.

“You need to fly a small drone first and learn how to use it,” he explained. “You’re going to crash it a bunch of times in the beginning. You need to work up to the heavy-lift drones.”

“There’s a lot more pressure on you when you have that much money up in the air,” Callahan said.

Kapsalis agreed. “Drones are something that you need to respect,” he said. “These aren’t toys, but they are a tremendous amount of fun.”

In addition to the sale of an assortment of drones and other aerial photography equipment, Kapsalis plans to use his store to offer bus tours where he will bring aerial photography enthusiasts to scenic sites throughout New York state.

Brooklyn Drones NYC will also have an in-store art gallery of aerial photos and will provide beginner flight classes and aerial photography technique tutorials.

“There’s a huge demand for [drones] in Brooklyn,” said Kapsalis. “This hobby needs to have a store and a community where you can go and ask questions, take a class and have like-minded people help you learn and enjoy the hobby versus ordering online, not knowing what you’re doing and watching some YouTube videos.”

As drones are relatively new gadgets, there are currently few regulations surrounding them. They do not need to be registered if they weigh less than 55 pounds, and a license is not required to operate them.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recommendations and suggestions on safe recreational drone use, but has not created explicit laws.

Callahan said, however, that if you use drones professionally or commercially, you have to obtain a pilot’s license.

“There’s not a lot of overlap as far as skills go,” he explained. “Being an airplane pilot does not make you a better drone operator, although you might act more responsibly in regards to safety.

“The FAA’s thinking is that if drone operators fly irresponsibly, then they can have their pilot’s licenses revoked,” Callahan added.

While there are not many regulations on drone use, drone enthusiasts do follow a set of unwritten rules.

“You should never fly drones in populated areas,” said Kapsalis. “You should go to a designated field, learn how to fly them, take it slow and enjoy the hobby without worrying that you are going to crash and hurt someone.”

Drone professionals encourage beginners to take classes and ask questions before buying or operating a drone.

Is there a Need for More Drone Regulation?

Given the abundance of recent national headlines highlighting irresponsible drone use, some wonder whether drones should be more strictly regulated.

In August, the Eagle reported on a drone that was peering into a Brooklyn Heights high-rise, causing many residents to feel shocked and uncomfortable.

“In terms of invasion of privacy, we have a clear set of privacy laws already in place,” said Kapsalis. “If you decide to take a drone and fly it in your neighbor’s backyard,” or next to a high-rise, “it’s the same as standing in a tree with a telescopic lens. You should get a fine and you should get arrested.”

In early December, a man was cited for flying a drone near the Washington Monument in D.C.

Last January, a drone crashed on the White House grounds, and in October, one crashed on the Ellipse in front of the White House.

Federal law prohibits flying remote-controlled aircraft in the restricted airspace around Washington, D.C., and in any area governed by the National Park Service.

In 2015, there were 10 reported incidents involving illegal operation of a drone in a Washington-area national park.

Just last month, President Barack Obama and his family were on vacation in Hawaii when a recreational drone flew dangerously close to the presidential motorcade.

On Christmas day, an Air Canada flight landing in Boston spotted a drone as the plane approached Logan Airport. The drone was roughly two miles from the runway at about 800 feet in the air.

On Jan. 1, a JetBlue flight also spotted a drone as it was approaching Logan Airport.

In late December, the International Ski Federation (FIS) prohibited drones from its World Cup competition after one crashed and nearly struck Austrian skier Marcel Hirscher during a race in Italy.

Men’s race director Markus Waldner told the Associated Press that FIS will prohibit drones “as long as I am responsible … because they are a bad thing for safety. It was huge luck that Marcel was not hurt. I am very angry.”

Some feel the aforementioned incidents highlight a growing security challenge posed by these airborne devices, and thus a need for laws and rules surrounding them.

“This is a new technology, and over the last couple years, there weren’t many regulations. But the FAA has recently stepped in to create a set of rules that we need to follow,” said Kapsalis.

“As the hobby becomes more popular and there are more regulations put into place, the public will feel a lot safer.”

Kapsalis conceded that while there may be irresponsible drone users, drones are being used for good as well, such as aiding in search-and-rescue missions.

“There are drones [to which you can attach] a thermal camera, and [while it] would normally take hundreds of volunteers to cover a thousand acres, a drone can fly a pattern with a thermal camera and look for someone’s body temperature and find that person in minutes,” said Kapsalis.

“The Fire Department can use the same technology flying a drone over a warehouse that is on fire, using the thermal camera to see the weak spots on the roof before they send their firemen in,” he added.

“In addition, drones can be used to inspect cell phone towers or bridges so that a person doesn’t have to climb a thousand feet up and risk his or her life.”

Other popular uses of this emerging gadget include agriculture photography and conservation and wildlife measurement.  


Brooklynites Consider Pros and Cons of Drones

The Eagle took to the streets of Brooklyn to ask fellow citizens what they think about these increasingly popular gadgets.

Sunset Park resident Alexis Nieves, 23, has a mixed opinion.

“I believe in one way [drones] are good for businesses and those working to examine the negative consequences that oil spillovers have on our ecosystem,” he said. “In the Amazons, for example, drones are used to explore oil drilling in restricted areas.

“Nevertheless, drones can also cause friction among individual parties and groups. Drones have also been considered as spy tools used by individuals to gain access to information. Thus, the impact that commercial drones has can vary depending on what they are used for and by whom they are used.”

Callahan agreed. “Every new technology can be used to do really destructive things or really great things,” he contended. “It’s just human nature.”

Adam Miller, 23, a Brooklyn Heights native studying at Northeastern University, is hopeful about the future of drone use.

“I think that drones are innovative and an exciting new technology,” said Miller. “They are in their infancy and have a wide range of possibilities beyond the hobbyist market. It’ll be interesting to see how they evolve in the coming years, both in their regulation and technological innovation.”

Miller also addressed the negative implications and security threats behind these gadgets.

“I think [a] negative connotation stems from the word ‘drone,’ which could be associated with a military drone,” said Miller. “Realistically, there is always a security risk with any new technological innovation.

“But one must weigh the risk with the return; I see the commercial drone as something that is worth the risk.”

Either way, Brooklynites only have to wait a few more weeks before they, too, can fly high in the sky.

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