It’s a land rush in the air.
Jordi Munoz Bardales is one of a handful of San Diego entrepreneurs staking out new territory in the rapidly commercializing field of unmanned aviation.
Munoz, 25, is CEO of 3D Robotics Inc. Working out of a Kearny Mesa business park, his enterprise produces and sells components for model-size unmanned aircraft, providing them to hobbyists, college engineering programs and other entrepreneurs.
Its specialty is autopilot electronics.
Early in the venture, Munoz said, he saw that he might be onto something when he assembled 40 autopilots and sold them in a single day. “I realized I had a business here,” Munoz said.
Munoz works at the micro level. At the macro level are Austin Blue and Eddie Kisfaludy. The two fly a small business aircraft that doubles as a test bed for cameras and other sophisticated new technology that may one day ride on unmanned aircraft.
“We operate a surrogate UAV,” said Blue, referring to unmanned aerial vehicles.
The military makes extensive use of unmanned aircraft, to spy on the battlefield and to deliver weapons. But they may have peaceful missions, too.
Coming to U.S. Airspace
The federal government is loosening regulations for the use of unmanned aircraft in U.S. airspace. In February, President Barack Obama signed the Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill. One of its many provisions is to let drones fly in the national airspace by 2015.
Those drones might be handheld models able to hoist small cameras aloft. Or they might be bigger models able to carry heftier imaging equipment and the electronics that go with it.
Camera-equipped drones may one day be the choice of paparazzi. People already have used camera drones for real estate sales, taking pictures of properties from unique vantage points. Federal officials closed at least one such business, because drones can’t yet be used for commercial purposes.
Blue said farmers may one day use drones and sophisticated sensors to determine what areas of their fields need water or fertilizer; they use conventional aircraft now. Researchers might also use drones to find items of interest in wide expanses of forest or ocean.
These aircraft can be as small as four-rotor copters that resemble a flying letter X, and can be put together with a few hundred dollars. The copters built by 3D Robotics run on open-source software. College engineering programs like them, Munoz said, because students can analyze software code, modify the code, improve the product (or crash the copter) and learn in the process.
Munoz said his enterprise is a success because it uses open-source software. 3D Robotics operates a website called DIY Drones, which lets tinkerers compare notes.
He said he also tries to make everything he sells as inexpensive as possible.
It’s a long way from 2007 and 2008, when Munoz disassembled components from a Nintendo Wii and integrated them into a model helicopter, making a drone of his own. He posted updates to the project on the Internet, including the code he wrote. The work attracted notice from Chris Anderson, editor in chief of New York-based Wired Magazine and author of “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.” Anderson sent him $100 and a note of encouragement. Today, Anderson and Munoz are 50 percent owners of 3D Robotics.
3D Robotics has left garage and bedroom quarters in favor of 10,000 square feet of industrial space. The firm has 20 employees in San Diego and six in Tijuana, and relies on 20 software developers worldwide. It has three jobs open.
Its building houses specialized machines that churn out ArduPilot autopilots, which fit on purple circuit boards the size of business cards. Munoz said he would like to buy a second pick-and-place machine to mount components to circuit boards, and locate it in Tijuana. Eventually, he said, he would like to put most of his production in Mexico, while keeping the engineering team in the United States.
Seeking a Higher Ceiling
Current law states that model aircraft and UAVs must not fly higher than 400 feet. Preparing for the day when that ceiling might be lifted is SciFly LLC, based at Montgomery Field in Kearny Mesa.
SciFly said it can help camera developers today by carrying their inventions into the sky. Since sensors can often produce great amounts of data, the SciFly aircraft (a Cherokee Six model from Piper Aircraft Inc.) has room for people onboard. Those passengers can interpret that data, eliminating the need for a sophisticated wireless connection to transfer the data to the ground.
SciFly said commercial or government clients might one day want to send specialized instruments such as multispectral/hyperspectral cameras into the air. These cameras can key in on certain colors and ignore surrounding “noise,” accomplishing feats such as locating whales and dolphins in the open ocean. They might also locate wreckage, lost hikers or oil sheens.
A combination of cameras, software and computers might soon allow robots to pass over an area, then revisit the area and detect changes such as a moved vehicle, Blue said.
Large drones able to keep a lot of fuel onboard may someday work for long-endurance commercial or government missions, Blue added. Drones may also be best for dangerous missions, such as low flights in bad weather.
For now, some drone work is science fiction, or at least appropriate for April Fool’s Day.
One outfit in the San Francisco Bay Area recently promoted food delivery to certain GPS coordinates via small helicopter drones.
Some have dismissed TacoCopter Inc. as a hoax, though the business does seem to be offering a product — logo T-shirts — on its website.