AUSTIN— For a young Mexican immigrant, a hobby building toy helicopters has grown into a multi-million-dollar business. The immigrant and his company are flying high with airborne drones.
It began with a remote-controlled helicopter that Jordi Munoz got as a gift from his mother. Munoz, who is now 26, used a game controller and a component he bought online to modify the toy, five years ago.
“It did not work, the first version, but that is the beginning of everything," said Munoz.
As he stabilized and improved the toy aircraft, Munoz built an online following of hobbyists through a blog. With money borrowed from a friend, editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine Chris Anderson, Munoz bought the parts to build more drones and advertised online.
“And then I sold them in one day," he said. "So I multiplied the money by a factor of four in 24 hours.”
With his friend Anderson, Munoz founded the company 3D Robotics. Anderson left his journalism job to become the company's chief executive.
3D Robotics manufacturers its own computer chips, the brain of the devices, and sells to hobbyists and businesses worldwide. The drones cost just a fraction of the price of military versions, selling for hundreds - not thousands - of dollars.
The company employs 30 workers in the United States and 25 across the Mexican border in Tijuana, and the Tijuana plant is being expanded.
As privately-owned drones have become more popular, some are raising concerns about privacy issues. Yet with demand increasing, Munoz says he wants to build his business along the U.S.-Mexico border, instead of manufacturing more cheaply in Asia.
“It is better if we keep the money on this side of the continent, rather than sending money to China and manufacture over there," he said.
Munoz says the drones can used be used for security, research and other serious applications, or flown by hobbyists just for fun, and that his company has helped create a market for this new technology.