San Diego Business Journal

Flying High

TECHNOLOGY: Unmanned Aviation Industry Growing By Brad Graves Monday, April 16, 2012
Jordi Munoz Bardales, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics Inc., stands back as a miniature, six-rotor drone hovers. Flanking Munoz are two machines used to produce autopilot circuit boards.

Jordi Munoz Bardales, CEO and co-founder of 3D Robotics Inc., stands back as a miniature, six-rotor drone hovers. Flanking Munoz are two machines used to produce autopilot circuit boards. Photo by Melissa Jacobs.

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.

Cruising Along

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.

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