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.
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.
"There are a lot of good things in this country that allow you to innovate faster and be able to set up a company very fast and efficiently," he said.
There is less bureaucracy than in Mexico and the physical and virtual infrastructure like – USPS or PayPal – make creating and running a startup attractive.
"Shipping is very reliable," he pointed out. "In Mexico you cannot ship with Correos de Mexico, the equivalent to USPS, because the package gets lost. It never arrives. They take forever. Infrastructure is what puts the United States in a very good position compared to other countries."
That reliability has allowed 3D Robotics to expanded multiple times since its start. Not long ago it moved into a bigger – 10,000 square foot – facility, but is already looking to move into something around 20,000 square feet. At a second location in Tijuana, 3D Robotics has set up a manufacturing base. There it assembles ready-to-use drones for customers who care more about flying the crafts and less about tinkering and customizing them.
Last November, Anderson became full-time CEO of 3D Robotics. He'll be working from Berkeley on the company's broader strategy. San Diego remains home base, where research and development happens and the warehouse that builds parts that are shipped worldwide.
In the years since starting his business, Muñoz has still not become a U.S. citizen. The same lengthy process that allowed him to start tinkering with the helicopter that led to 3D Robotics also gives him pause. He says he recognizes the citizenship process may be just as bad.
The young Mexican entrepreneur, aware of stereotypes that paint immigrants as job takers, points out that he has been creating them all along. He opened his company at the peak of the recession. At that time, 80 percent of what he sold was exported, which also brought money into the U.S.
"I'm happy to say that as an immigrant I came to this country and I'm creating jobs. That's something to think about. It asks American citizens to give us an opportunity to benefit the country."