By Diane Lindquist
Jordi Munoz’s role in the drone industry took off a decade ago when the Baja California native was 20 years old and living in Los Angeles waiting for a green card so he could get work in the United States.
Using microchips heated in the oven to attach to circuit boards and a video game console remote control, he created an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, in his garage. The device proved to be a major tech innovation that has helped give rise to a completely new global industry.
The idea of drones dates to the late 1880s. By the 1990s, their use was mainly restricted to the military. But Munoz’ multi-rotor drone, with its embedded processors, tiny sensors, GPS receivers and lightweight but powerful batteries, hit the market in 2009 and put the devices within easy reach of hobbyists and other consumers.
Munoz remarkable story mirrors the evolution of drones
“I was crazy, and I didn’t know what I was doing,” he said in a recent interview. “I always wanted to be a pilot. I grew up reading books about that and about computers. I put together model airplanes. I was just obsessed with things that fly.”
Living in Los Angeles, he grew bored. “I had so much time I was killing myself. There was nothing around. I learned to program. I just started fooling around,” he said.
His business took off when a blog he had written for the DIY drones community caught the eye of Wired magazine’s editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who had started the site for aerial vehicle enthusiasts. Anderson sent Munoz a check for $500. They collaborated, without ever meeting in person, and founded 3D Robotics.
Munoz, as chief technology officer, was the engineering brains while Anderson, as chief executive, focused on the business and investment side of things.
The company took off, routinely landing near the top of industry lists of the best global drone makers. In 2012, It employed more than 350 people at four main sites. With prices ranging from $740 to $5,400, sales hit close to $40 million in 2014 before weakening as Chinese copycats undercut prices.
In addition, Munoz was chosen as one of the top innovators under 35 in Mexico by Technology Review, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“A lot of people will look at him down the line as one of the pioneers,” said Darryl Anunciado, who’s ActionDrone operations are located in a cluster of warehouses in Chula Vista’s East Lake neighborhood near where Munoz established a new business after leaving 3D Robotics.
Being the joint boss of a fast-growing corporation was a cultural shock for Munoz. He had no prior business training nor leadership experience and had not been to university. Instead, he had been used to working on his own and learning from the internet, according to him, earning a Google PhD.
The board of directors, with the recreational drone market slowing, made the decision to concentrate 3D Robotics in Berkeley. They shut down the manufacturing in Tijuana and Munoz’ design operations in San Diego. As the company grew, a board with 14 members had control.
“It was not like Chris and me, each with 50 percent,” he said. “They were closing the branch of the company I was working with. I was very happy in San Diego. I didn’t see any enjoyment in moving.”
Since January, Munoz has been working on starting a new company called mRobotics. With a new staff, the enterprise is focusing on specialized raw materials and specialized hardware. Instead of recreational users, target customers will be engineers, scientists, the military, those considered advanced customers, the bulk of whom are expected to be in Europe.
“It’s a lot different now. I know what I’m doing. There’s not as much stress,” Munoz said. Still, he has been kept extremely busy setting up the new operation. “I’m wearing 20 hats.”
He envisions a company that will be substantially different from 3D Robotics.
“My business will have more organic growth. It’s not money grabbing. It gives more attention to the employees and the customers,” Munoz said. “Honestly, I just want a mid-sized company. I want to relax. I don’t want board meetings.”
Unlike 3D, Munoz doesn’t see mRobotics manufacturing in Tijuana. “Tijuana is good for bigger-scale manufacturing. Tijuana is good because it’s cheaper. There’s really good people there. I’ve brought people from Tijuana to set up my machines,” he said.
Those in the San Diego-Tijuana cross-border drone industry were impressed that he would leave 3D and develop a firm that is more approachable. Munoz said he hopes to spur faster development among smaller companies because he can offer the development tools to help them. It’s more difficult to get started now, he said, because there is so much competition.
“People have said: ‘It’s so good you’re back.’ I enjoy it. It’s very gratifying,” he said.
Munoz, now 30, predicts he will produce even more innovations in the future.
New regulations planned in the United States and elsewhere will impact how drones can be operated, he said. Drone operators might have to reserve air space and notify towers that they are going to take off.
Since earning that pilot’s license he so long desired, Munoz foresees drones and airplanes linking together, much like the connection between computers and the internet.
“I have an eye for more development now that I’ve become a pilot,” Munoz said. “Aeronautics will be part of my world.”