Where are the opportunities to make a business out of drones? 3D Robotics co-founder Jordi Muñoz explores the future...
In 2008 I was 20 years old and living in Riverside, California, bored out of my mind waiting for my green card to come through, when I built my first autopilot. I modified a Nintendo Wii controller and programmed it with my own code, which I wrote to automatically stabilize a toy helicopter in the air. I turned that into a business, and when I look around me today, I see that I’m still living in Southern California, but now I’m the CTO of North America’s largest personal drone maker.
When people hear my story, they tend to ask two questions. First: how did that happen? And second: can it happen again?
The first one I don’t know how to answer. I worked hard, but also I was very, very lucky. Lots of things happened almost all at once: smartphones had revolutionized the world to the point where incredible technology was accessible to a kid with a Wii and a computer. And the internet had created, in Chris’s terms, an anonymous meritocracy where my work could connect meaningfully with experts around the world, despite my age, language, and education (I'd dropped out of college!). In this world, questions of resumes and schools and “who you know” didn’t matter. I didn’t know what I didn’t know: I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to be able to invent a cheap autopilot, so I did.
So that’s kind of how it happened: perfect timing, more or less. This brings us to question number two: can it happen again?
Easy: yes. But “it” won’t be drones, exactly. It will be what drones themselves will revolutionize. I think that my particular revolution is over, that that exact combination of conditions will never be the same again. We’ve moved on from revolution to evolution – as a typo just told me!
What I mean by this is that the technology has been created, the cats have flown out of the bag. We need two types of entrepreneurs now: people who can make the technology do new things and perfect those things (this will mostly be with new software built on our existing platforms); and people who can apply the technology in new and meaningful ways.
So the next “Jordi Munoz story” (yuck!) probably won’t be about someone who figures out how to build drones and then creates their own drone empire from a video game remote. The next one will be about the people who figure out what to do with drones: how to make them do new things, and how to use them to do new things. Here are the best opportunities I see today.
Drones are already appearing on farms, but haven’t yet reached a critical mass. Part of this is due to slow-moving regulations in the US (Japan has been crop dusting with drones for 15 years!) But part is also figuring out the best, easiest, and most useful applications.
At 3D Robotics, we seek out the advice, opinions and knowledge of experts, and we respond to it. We’re nerds, not farmers. Drones will help farmers, and it’s the farmers who will change the world.
Field opportunities: regional “aerial ag” experts; crop scouting; pest and blight identification; crop health and weed identification; checking water stress and soil moisture; precision agriculture applications like fertilizer, pesticides, and water distribution.
Tech opportunities: improved NIR/NDVI imagery; simpler and quicker workflow, especially in the field; longer flight times; greater and more versatile payload capacity; cheaper and more disposable hardware.
Perhaps drones are best-known now for carrying GoPros, so this may seem like the obvious opportunity. But we have yet to see the full-blown revolution in Hollywood (or Bollywood, for that matter). What would that look like? I have no idea, because again, I’m a nerd, not a filmmaker. But they’re infinitely cheaper, more maneuverable and safer than helicopters.
Imagine what a filmmaker could do with one – with a whole fleet on set. Enormous shots, acrobatic shots, 3D shots – ways to trigger emotions in new ways, perhaps rediscover emotions we didn’t know we had anymore. We need filmmakers to show us how amazing our world can look when seen from above. Soon even the tops of our buildings won’t be so dirty and dull.
Field opportunities: an aerial video department for film and TV production houses; one-man freelance aerial film units; documentaries of subjects that are otherwise impossible; drone film class; any shot you’d need a helicopter for.
Tech opportunities: longer flight times; greater payload capacity (bigger cameras); multiple “swarm” angles; quickly programming “presets,” or instantly repeatable and modifiable shots for different takes.
Mapping and 3D modeling
Today we build real things from digital models and plans. Now drones can take those real things and make them digital again. They close the loop. Why is this useful? You can monitor things like construction, for one thing – document the real progress and compare to the digital plan. You can also accurately monitor and document deterioration and other such changes over time.
With a georeferenced map or model, you can also quickly and accurately measure and quantify areas and objects – even vast areas that would take a ground survey team several days to cover, and would cost many times more to cover with a plane.
Take a look at our rough model of the Great House on Necker island below.
Field opportunities: Industrial inspection; construction; power plants and lines, roads, rail, shipping, and other infrastructure; mining; civic engineering and city planning; basically anything that needs to be inspected regularly or closely or contrasted over time.
Tech opportunities: Developing and/or integrating new sensor technology; discovering needs for new payloads; longer flight times; better and quicker workflows; storing and processing large amounts of data in the field; swarm technology.
Vehicles for good
The humanitarian demand and applications for drones have really blown me away. 3DR has great friends in ConservationDrones.org, who use our platform to monitor Sumatran rain forests, Bolivian fisheries and palm oil plantations, and even count orangutan nests. We are on the board of UAViators.org, a worldwide humanitarian network that connects volunteer drone pilots around the world, to instantly have an eye in the sky to document and monitor crisis areas. We also support TeamAREND, a collection of university research departments building drones to protect rhinos from poachers.
So there are many ways that a forward-thinking person can change how our non-profit institutions work, change the work they do, or create entirely new work. Excuse me for this Silicon Valley cliché, but this tech will change the world; it already is.
Field opportunities: anywhere there’s crisis, injustice, despair, inequality, suffering, danger, and/or hope. Or a big bloated organization that could use some velocity.
Tech opportunities: global photo, video, and aerial software networking; cheaper and more disposable hardware; simpler and quicker workflow; longer flight times.
Those are the best opportunities that I see today. But remember – I don’t know what I don’t know. Many more are lurking. The next drone entrepreneurs will find them.
– Jordi Muñoz is co-founder and CTO of 3D Robotics. This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.
We’re sharing lots of stories from people and organisations using drones for good. Check out our homepage, 'In focus: Drones for good'.