At 20 years old, Jordi Muñoz found himself in Riverside, Calif., an hour east of Los Angeles with not much to do. He'd settled there to wait for a green card after leaving Mexico to start a family with his wife, a U.S. citizen. He was away from friends and family, and he could not work or continue school in the U.S. either. So, with an internet connection and his programing skills, he began tinkering with a remote control helicopter.
"I was extremely bored," he said. "I could only watch TV or program something, so I decided to program."
In his bedroom he tweaked his toy, splicing motion sensors of a Nintendo Wii controller with the mini copter. He calls those eight months "the most productive months of my life." That's because his pet project put him at the front of a budding industry: the personal drone market.
His eureka moment came when he was able to stabilize the helicopter's flight using computer code. He posted his progress on DIY Drones, an online community started by Chris Anderson, who was editor of Wired magazine at the time. Muñoz also acquired more and better sensors, like a geographical positioning system, or GPS, probably the most important component on a drone, he says.
Anderson took an interest in Munoz's work. He found Muñoz's accomplishments "impressive" and began collaborating with him virtually.
"He was able to quickly learn about very advanced technology. He did all that by teaching himself on the internet," Anderson said. "He's that generation of people who don't know what they don't know. He didn't know he was supposed to have a PhD to invent a drone. He just did it."
In 2008, Anderson gave Muñoz seed money to grow his project. In 2009, the two founded their company, 3D Robotics, though they had never met in person, according to Anderson. That May, Muñoz put together his first kits, dubbed "autopilot," in – of all places and like any authentic startup – his garage. The first 40 kits – each priced at $40 – sold out the same day he set up an online store. Going forward, no matter how many he built, demand exceeded what he could supply. Soon, he hired friends to help him keep up. To this day, the warehouse in San Diego is staffed largely with friends – about 30 of them. Some remember him from years ago as a geeky kid who dreamed of becoming a pilot.
3D Robotics does in fact marry Muñoz's childhood dream of a career in aviation with his obsession of computer technology. No, the now-26 year old may not be piloting a plane, but he's steering what in half a decade has become a multi-million-dollar company. And it hasn't even hit its peak. Last year 3D Robotics' sales exceeded $5 million. This year Muñoz says they are on track to double.
Most people associate drones with the U.S. military's covert killing missions of alleged terrorists overseas and, in many cases, civilians, too. But, Muñoz says, there are many more commercial applications. In Italy drones are used to monitor archeological sites; in Mexico drones are the best tool to survey construction of a new airport built in the jungle; and fire and police departments find them a great alternative to putting personnel in dangerous situations. Worldwide spending on drones is nearly $6 billion annually and will grow to more than $11 billion, with police departments accounting for much of that growth.