- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Jordi Munoz had no training. Scant schooling. Little money. He also had a video-game console and nothing else to do.

So he built his own drone.

A Mexican native, Mr. Munoz married an American citizen and moved to Riverside, Calif., in 2007. While waiting for his green card, the 21-year-old was marooned in his apartment, unable to work, attend school or obtain a driver’s license.

On the other hand, he had an Internet connection. A Nintendo Wii. A radio-controlled toy helicopter his mother had given him to help kill time.

Tinkering with the Wii’s control wand and a $60 gyroscope he had purchased on eBay, he modified the helicopter to fly itself, just like the $5 million Predator unmanned aerial vehicles deployed by the U.S. military.

A Draganflyer X6 drone lent to the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff's Department in 2009 is used in search-and-rescue, finding suspects and identifying fire hot spots. (Mesa County Sheriff's Department via Associated Press)
A Draganflyer X6 drone lent to the Mesa County, Colo., Sheriff’s Department ... more >

Five years later, Mr. Munoz is co-founder and CEO of 3D Robotics, a San Diego-based company that has 18 employees and earned more than $300,000 in revenue in December producing components for hobbyist drones.

“The first time I was able to successfully fly with my autopilot was one of the happiest days of my life,” said Mr. Munoz, now 25. “The whole thing cost less than $200. Believe me, that was a lot of money for me at the time.

“When I started this, it was only for fun. But now I see many applications.”

Mr. Munoz’s vision is hardly unique. Once the stuff of science fiction, autonomous aircraft are on the verge of widespread commercial and personal use, with pending federal regulations set to integrate drones into American airspace by 2015.

Soon, experts predict, drones will be used to transport air cargo. Assist with search-and-rescue. Perform police surveillance. Inspect oil pipelines and sprawling vineyards. Follow and photograph tabloid targets such as Lindsay Lohan.

Increasingly capable and affordable, as large as jetliners and as small as oversized Frisbees, drones also raise serious questions about privacy and safety.

“I think we’re going to see many commercial applications and much more civilian development than in the military,” said Missy Cummings, director of the Humans and Automation Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “In 15 years, you could look up in the sky and see UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] doing window washing and building inspections. You also could see every jealous ex-husband or wife following their significant other around. For good or bad, we are on the cusp of a new era.”

The future is soon

Ms. Cummings saw it coming. As a Navy pilot, she experienced the technological jump from old-school, hand-flown A-4s — the jets used as the pretend enemies in the film “Top Gun” — to newer, more computerized F-18 fighters.

“The F-18 was like a video-game environment,” she said. “You’d get a lock on a target, and it would literally say, ‘shoot, shoot, shoot’ on the screen. That was a leap.”

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