Cliff Grimes’ interest in drones began four years ago, right around the time the popular DJI Phantom was released.
“My friend happened to have it, and it was cool because it offered a different perspective of the Jersey Shore that you don’t normally see, from up high,” Grimes said of the camera-equipped quadcopter.
A district sales manager for a wireless retailer at the time, Grimes bought a drone of his own to keep the fun going. Over time, he noticed Philly was missing something the he and fellow hobbyists so sorely needed.
“There was no place to pick up an extra battery or a set of propellers, or talk to someone that could help you fix an issue,” he said.
Grimes and his cousin, Fred Santilli, opened Liberty Drones at the corner of 5th and Gaskill Streets in Philadelphia about a year ago to fill this void, and then some. In addition to accessories, Liberty Drones offers repairs and classes for beginners and pilots, and sells drones of various capabilities both online and in-store. They have between eight and ten different models, ranging in price from $300 to $2,000.
Their hottest-seller, Grimes said, is currently the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, which boasts a high definition 4K video camera and obstacle avoidance technology in all directions.
While it’s not the only store to sell drones and their accessories—Best Buy and HobbyTown do that, too—it appears to be the only business in the greater Philadelphia area that’s entirely dedicated to drones. Without Liberty, Philadelphians wanting the full-service treatment would have to schlep out to New York or the D.C. area.
But people may not have to travel for long.
As the devices continue to explode in popularity, Paula Rosenblum, managing partner at market intelligence company RSR Research, said it’s not unreasonable to think that more drone-centric retail stores will open in the area.
“The market may reach a point where it makes sense,” Rosenblum said.
It seems to be well on its way. Once associated with deadly military operations, the stigma attached to drones has practically flown away since they’ve become more mainstream in recent years—especially following the Federal Aviation Administration’s recent move to broadly authorize commercial drone use in the U.S. Authorization was previously granted on a case-by-case basis.
The FAA said on March 27 that would-be drone fliers had filed more than 770,000 drone registrations in the U.S. since it began requiring people to do so about 15 months back, as a way to keep tabs on the growing number of users entering the airspace. Of that number, 100,000 were filed in just the last three months.
While specific numbers per region were not part of that announcement, the number of recreational and commercial drones registered in Philadelphia was very likely higher than 788, which was the number registered in the city as of last May. At the time, the nationwide figure was almost 460,000, according to the FAA.
Even if specialty drone stores do become more pervasive to accommodate this need, Rosenblum isn’t so sure they’ll last very long.
“Because these things commoditize so quickly, they could end up getting absorbed into larger chains,” Rosenblum said. “Because if Best Buy thinks there’s money there, they won’t just sell the—they’ll repair them, too.”
Grimes and Santilli do offer more than repairs, products and accessories, however. As more drone operators take to the skies, more people are seeking out training, and Liberty Drones offers classes for this type of users.
“It’s really customized to the person, but for beginners, we’ll spend the first half of any lesson going over the FAA rules and regulations, pre-flight checklists, in-flight checklists, and post-flight checklists,” Grimes said. “Everything from the moment you step foot on the area you’re going to fly, up to the point where you’re packing everything up.”
Unlike recreational users, commercial drone operators must pass a rigorous aeronautical knowledge test before they can hit the skies. Liberty Drones offers classes for that, too.
And because they're pretty handy with the drones themselves, Liberty Drones provides professional photography and videography services, as well. That's good news for their bottom line, since Allied Market Research expects the aerial imaging market to garner $2.8 billion worldwide by 2022.
Joe Glennon, an advertising professor at Temple University, has already seen a marked increase in drone usage in this area.
“On the production side of things, a drone shot is almost a prerequisite for the establishing shot [of a scene],” Glennon said. “The area where I see it used the most is in real estate.”