So far, 3D Robotics has sold 30,000 autopilot units. Muñoz's company also sells an array of parts, including motors, batteries, cables and propellers to do-it-yourself drone enthusiasts, but autopilot remains the company's focus. Think of autopilot as the brain of the drone. It interfaces with the other components to create the magic of independent flight. It's what Muñoz first programmed when he was cooped up waiting for his papers, and it remains the company's core product.
His endeavor, however, was not a solitary one. Although programming his RC helicopter to fly (and everything since) was indeed a breakthrough, his success came from building on code developed by the open-source programing community. To this day, 3D Robotics continues to rely on the extended community of programmers that collaborate on autopilot – for free.
In the open source ethos, programmers work collaboratively to create and refine code. They volunteer their time to advance a project with the understanding that their work benefits the whole community. Anyone can take and use code, as long as whatever they adapt continues to be offered freely to anyone and everyone. The widely popular Firefox browser was developed with this model. "Anyone can replicate our products," said Muñoz. He offers code and diagrams to the components freely so that anyone can modify, improve or build their own drones from scratch. Though the vast majority of users are interested only in developing code.
Programmers from as far as Australia or Brazil test and write code to fix bugs or apply more complex algorithms that improve the performance of such drones. Volunteers, who may work at tech or aerospace firms during the day, work closely with a team of engineers at 3D Robotics, which incorporates fixes and adds further enhancements. Muñoz admitted that autopilot has evolved so much that none of his original code remains in autopilot today. He has to follow developments daily, or fall behind.
Thanks to the explosion of smartphones and the market for their components, drone parts have also become smaller, better and more energy efficient. Most importantly they have become more affordable.
Free labor from volunteer programmers creates additional savings for 3D Robotics – allowing it to pass on savings to customers, according to Muñoz. What exactly are those savings? Muñoz says building a single autopilot without 3D Robotics might three times what Muñoz sells them for. A fully-functional 3D Robotics craft requires a one-time cost of $600 -- or what a helicopter rental might cost per hour.
Most customers willing to fork over this kind of cash are amateur drone enthusiasts. However, many use the drones in education or apply them for commercial purposes and for research.
At the University of Colorado at Boulder, researchers are using drones in climate science. Doug Weibel, research associate at the university's aerospace engineering science department, uses drones to gather meteorological data for weather predictions and to understand global warming. The drones' low cost and flexibility allow scientist to get better data in remote places, like melting polar ice caps, or during dangerous weather-related events, like a tornado.
Muñoz says setting up shop in the United States, when compared to Mexico, has made building his company easier.