The week of February 1, 2015

Clear skies, full hearts: The can’t-lose vision of 3D Robotics

By Ramon Ramirez

The skies are perfectly clear outside the West Austin, Texas, offices of 3D Robotics, the largest personal drone company in the United States.

Inside, editorial director Roger Sollenberger’s black lab, Michelle, fervently waits for him to return from the bathroom. A science-fiction–inspired mural commissioned by local artists greets visitors, while nine leather couches face a massive projection screen, bolstered by a wireless Sonos sound system and an Xbox. A bullpen of pristine Mac desktops, a ping-pong table, and a silver refrigerator stocked with locally brewed iced teas complete the tech-boom aesthetic.

There are also drones, of course—industry-leading, autonomous drones that, to hear 3D Robotics pitch it, are on the cusp of changing humanity.

Sollenberger says the staff is constantly flying them out back and that the engineers are perpetually tinkering. The shop has glass walls, and there are wires and half-finished ideas all over. 3DR touts its open-source approach to development, and this hangout garage of a workspace fits that philosophical mold.

“It’s, you know, sharing its platform around the world to try to empower innovation, to try to enable imagination,” Sollenberger says of 3DR and its arsenal of drones. “It’s going to bleed over, and it’ll be used in agriculture, mining, forestry, wildlife habitat protection. All of these verticals that are just now starting to spread out—and what appeals to me is drones being used for good.”

3DR’s employees know that their company outlook has no ceiling at the moment. Today, however, Sollenberger’s job is to think about and articulate a future integrated with drones to the general public as the business moves beyond the hobbyist market.

“There’s all this jargon that’s super esoteric and only these guys who have been immersed in this just because they’re geeks—you know, they’ve been geeking out for years—have this technical language, and we have to find a way to communicate that.”

3DR is betting on 2015 being the year of the dad.

He means general terms like “autonomy” and “gimbal” (the gyroscopic thingy that hangs from drones and keeps the camera stable). These, he maintains, will become as widely understood as, say, USB drives. Everyone knows what they do, just not how exactly they work.

“We’re doing the same pivot as the industry,” Sollenberger says. “We’re moving from the hobbyist market to a broader consumer market. We have to find a way to make these things exciting.

“Luckily that’s really easy.”

3DRobotics drone in Austin, Texas

Doing it themselves

Three years ago, 3DR cofounder and CEO Chris Anderson ditched his post as editor-in-chief of Wired. The move was a no-brainer­. He’d generated $5 million by manufacturing drones on the side with a 20-something from Tijuana named Jordi Muñoz.

The pair met on Anderson’s community-driven blog, DIY Drones, around 2007. Anderson was reportedly bored with miniature walking robots that crashed into walls, so he gained a sufficiently thorough understanding of the comparatively nascent drone tech. He ordered Lego drones in the mail and soon after began perfecting his home-brewed aircraft with the crowdsourcing of 60,000-plus registered techie members on his blog.

Eventually, Anderson wrote out a DIY starter kit and began packing Lego into pizza boxes and shipping them out to enthusiasts. When the thriving hobby outgrew his means, Anderson began partnering with the site’s most promising blogger and his eventual cofounder, Muñoz. As a teenager, Muñoz was the kid the neighborhood turned to for home repairs—but he ditched college and moved to San Diego with his girlfriend and eventual wife at 21. Muñoz wanted to be a pilot, so while waiting around for his green card he’d build flying drones.

The garage period continued to boom, and when 3DR finally crystallized as a proper company, Muñoz set up a factory in Tijuana. According to Business Insider, 3DR’s 200-plus employees are powered by $35 million from venture capitalists. The company has moved “tens of thousands” of drones. Sales run out of Austin, Texas; 3DR is headquartered in Berkeley, Calif.; the principal engineering facility is stationed in San Diego; mass production takes place in China; and manufacturing is still centralized in Tijuana.

The Texas presence is a product of 3DR CRO Colin Guinn, who is essentially the central yell leader for the business and 3DR’s role in the industry. It was Guinn who testified in January before Congress, imploring the FAA to fast-track the integration of small-scale drones over America’s skies.

“Testing [drones] in test sites is not necessarily going to give us the necessary data and the logged flight hours to figure out what the hurdles are, what the roadblocks are, to safely integrating these systems,” Guinn argued. “I think we can start somewhere and instead of having to regulate and integrate 20-, 30-, and 40-pound systems, or 50-pound systems in our air space at one time, what I would at least bring to discussion is the possibility of [integrating] very small lightweight systems—as many other countries in the world have done.”

A 3D Robotics drone in the wild

During his stumping, Guinn caused a minor scene by flying a drone during the Congressional hearing. The point he was trying to illustrate is that 3DR wants to essentially work out all the drone bugs on a small scale first. To do this, it needs federal guidelines for taking its turkey-sized drones up in the air and perfecting the technology. And the clock is ticking.

“Our CEO is a big fan of saying ‘give us a sandbox,’” Sollenberger says. Back in Austin, Guinn’s points forge an echoed company pitch: America is way behind.

The year of the dad

“They are here,” Sollenberger says before citing a quote from cyberpunk author William Gibson: “‘The future is here—it’s just not evenly distributed.’ The U.S. is lagging behind and that’s going to change this year.”

Japan has been deploying drones for 15 years in the agricultural sector. And of course, Americans are familiar with drones as war machines. 3DR has its hands in both of these enterprises—training mining and agricultural companies stateside on the geo-mapping technology of drones, and consulting with the American military and NASA. But that’s not 3DR’s long-term strategy.

3DR’s 200-plus employees are powered by $35 million from venture capitalists. The company has moved “tens of thousands” of drones.

“Our CEO thinks that in a few years the commercial market will outstrip both of those markets combined,” Sollenberger says.

As such, 3DR is betting on 2015 being the year of the dad.

“Our drones [are autonomous], which sort of differentiates them from a lot of others in the market and that makes it a true drone,” Sollenberger says. “You can press a button, you can draw a path on a tablet. You don’t even have to know how to fly it. …  The dad stays in the picture.

“It allows you to participate in your adventures instead of just documenting.”

For nearly a century, parents stood before children and shot grainy first-person footage of them opening holiday presents or blowing out candles. In most nuclear families, dads set timers and dashed to the couch only to be snapped just before conforming to a comfortable pose. 3DR drones aim to lead that battering ram path into your living room. Features like their Android app, Follow Me, allow parents to position a drone above a little league game and hone in on their kid for optimal home movies.

3DRobotics drone controller

“It can be oversold, but it does change how we look at the world,” Sollenberger says.

On a larger scale, there are a few restraints drone manufacturers and enthusiasts currently face in regards to using personal drones within federal guidelines: You can’t fly higher than 400 feet, let them out of your sight, or fly under the influence of alcohol. You can’t fly them over airports, military bases, or national parks.

3DR’s “true drone” philosophy counters those restrictions with autonomous bots that know better.

“Our drones come out of the box with the software,” Sollenberger notes. “You can geofence around national parks, within five miles of an airport.”

During his stumping, Guinn caused a minor scene by flying a drone during the Congressional hearing.

That continued mapping data, coupled with the software drones need to stay out of hazardous flight paths, is what Sollenberger says is so central to the evolutionary safety of drones.

It should be noted that Sollenberger came into this industry as a skeptical critic. A former community college adjunct professor in Austin, Sollenberger says he once helped research and write an essay published in the Iowa Review about how drones and artificial intelligence were going to engulf humanity in a “nightmare scenario.” He was interested in working with 3DR as a learning opportunity and a novelty—a way for a writer to earn an honest check. But 3DR changed that.

“[Drones are] not just this GoPro action sports guy, and again this is a pejorative word but it is, you know, that narcissist sort of selfie idea,” Sollenberger says of the hobbyist market that leads sales for 3DR models like the $750 Iris. “What spoke to me was that they’re using it for farming. They’re going to change the way we grow food. … There’s a lot of benefits that can really outweigh those risks.”

About those risks: When 3DR started there was almost no media coverage of drones. Couple that with over a decade of military headlines in the Middle East and the inherent privacy concerns drones pose, and it’s easy to see why the notion of flying robots everywhere can mean rampant trepidation from the general populace. After all, malware that can hack into recreational drones already exists. But the 3DR party line is that this era of experimentation will bring about revolutionary net positives.

“You can use a hammer to build something; you can hit someone in the head with it,” Sollenberger says. “It’s really up to our users and you can’t police them, but you can make it safe.

“We embrace the term ‘drone.’ People are calling them that. That’s out of the bag. But it’s a steep learning curve; [the media is] climbing that now, we’re confident that the public will do the same thing.”

Clear skies, full hearts

Sollenberger agrees with the commonly cited projection that drones will be a $90 billion industry by 2020. In the office, his colleagues map out this particular week’s sales call itinerary: Minnesota and then Dubai, with plenty of time to archive some gnarly aerial footage.

3DR maintains that this moment in the industry’s ascent is akin to when companies would issue corporate BlackBerries in the mid-2000s. Soon after, the iPhone became a rampant platform for developers to slide in and build apps. Suddenly, even the high-dollar employees with a BlackBerry wanted everything running on the more meritocratic, open-sourced iPhone.

“The skies are totally empty. They’re not going to be.”

“We’ve already built the phone so to speak, and what you’re going to start seeing is people using [drones] in ways that we can’t think of,” Sollenberg says. “Anyone can take our code and use it to build their own company, and lots of companies out there are built off of our platform, and we’re super proud of that.”

That enabling of technology is what 3DR believes will lead to its most lucrative point: a wide-scale consumerization of the commercial space where drones are accessible and dynamic in function. Just like the early days of the company when 3DR was a glorified fan forum, the technology itself will drive its own proliferation.

3DR is “99.9 percent sure” that GoPro will be release a holiday drone. It’s prepared for ample market competition and appears to welcome the end result, which is an increasingly affordable price point for the public on these gadgets.

“Three years ago you’d have to shell out close to 10 grand,” Sollenberger says. “Jordi [Muñoz] thinks that in developed nations eventually there will be one drone per person.”

We’re standing next to a window at 3DR, a prime vantage point for the city’s rolling hills and skyline.

“They’re empty. The skies are totally empty,” Sollenberger says. “They’re not going to be.”

Photos via 3D Robotics