San Diego Business Journal

Out of ‘Hobby’ Class, Drones Lifting off for Personal, Commercial Use

Friday, March 16, 2012

Jordi Munoz had no training. Scant schooling. Little money. He also had a video-game console and nothing else to do.

So he built his own drone.

A Mexican native, Munoz married an American citizen and moved to Riverside in 2007. While waiting for his green card, the 21-year-old was marooned in his apartment, unable to work, attend school or obtain a driver’s license.

On the other hand, he had an Internet connection. A Nintendo Wii. A radio-controlled toy helicopter his mother had given him to help kill time.

Tinkering with the Wii’s control wand and a $60 gyroscope he had purchased on eBay, he modified the helicopter to fly itself, just like the $5 million Predator unmanned aerial vehicles deployed by the U.S. military.

Five years later, Munoz is co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a San Diego-based company that has 18 employees and earned more than $300,000 in revenue in December producing components for hobbyist drones.

“The first time I was able to successfully fly with my autopilot was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Munoz, now 25. “The whole thing cost less than $200. Believe me, that was a lot of money for me at the time.

“When I started this, it was only for fun. But now I see many applications.”

Munoz’s vision is hardly unique. Once the stuff of science fiction, autonomous aircraft are on the verge of widespread commercial and personal use, with pending federal regulations set to integrate drones into American airspace by 2015.