How a 20-Year-Old Upstart Built a Drone Empire

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June 26 2014 9:23 AM

How a 20-Year-Old Upstart Built a Drone Empire

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Delivery via quadcopter

Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

This story first appeared in Inc.

In 2007, when Jordi Muñoz was 20, he moved from Tijuana, Mexico, to Riverside, California, with his new and pregnant wife to get a green card and start a new life. While waiting eight months for his green card and with nothing better to do, Muñoz sunk himself into his passions: planes and computers.

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"It was a nightmare; I was disconnected with my family in Tijuana, I couldn't work because I didn't have a green card or go to college," Muñoz tells Inc. "I started using my computer like a drug. I felt desperate and stupid. But I realized microcomputers had great potential for phones, cars, and planes."

Muñoz hacked the sensors from a Nintendo Wii controller, wrote his own code, and equipped a remote helicopter with microcomputer boards to build the first-ever auto-piloted drone. He recorded the flight with a camera and uploaded the video to a new website he stumbled upon called DIYdrones.com, which was created by Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired. After Anderson saw the video, he sent the young inventor $500 so Muñoz could continue his work.

That's when Muñoz channeled his inner MacGyver. "I started making my own electronics, but I needed an oven to cook the chips," he says. "So, I went to Target and bought a toaster oven and hacked it with sensors to make it work like a professional reflow oven in my garage." (A reflow oven, for the uninitiated, is a temperature-controlled heating system used to attach microchips to circuit boards.)

From there, he built all the software and hardware and set up an online store for enthusiasts to build their own drones. "It was like selling drugs; I made the boards for $1, and the profit was amazing," he says. Not bad for an autodidact who got his start in aeronautical engineering in a Mexican high school.

By 2009, Anderson and Muñoz co-founded 3D Robotics without ever meeting in person. By 2011, 3D Robotics, which sells all kinds of drones equipped with open-source auto-pilot software—from the ready-to-fly Iris quadcopter, which comes assembled out of the box, to DIY quad kits for the more experienced droner—had made $5 million in revenue. 3D Robotics's drones are bought by enthusiasts and hobbyists to fly for fun, but because you can attach a GoPro camera to the underbelly, a variety of professionals can use them to take aerial images—including real estate agents and military personnel.

Muñoz, now 28, is awed by his success. Today, the drone startup that grew out of his apartment is the largest commercial drone manufacturer in North America and the second largest in the world after China's DJI. And with more than 200 employees, a manufacturing plant in Tijuana, and two other offices in San Diego and Berkeley, California, the sky appears to be the limit for 3D Robotics and Muñoz.

"He's of the native Web generation," says Anderson, who did end up meeting his co-founder after all. "Jordi doesn't know what he doesn't know. He has access to Google, the greatest information resource the world has ever seen. He didn't know teenagers aren't supposed to build factories; he just did it." He adds: "Muñoz has animal instincts about where technology is going and the courage and time to just do it."

Will Yakowicz is a reporter at Inc. magazine.

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