SAN DIEGO—The consumer-drone revolution can be traced back eight years ago, to a 20-year-old Mexican immigrant in Riverside, Calif., tinkering with a toy model helicopter.
Jordi Muñoz Bardales, newly arrived from Ensenada, Mexico, was awaiting his U.S. green card when he broke open his Nintendo Wii controller, removed its sensors and connected them to an $18 microcontroller—a tiny computer on a microchipthat he programmed to stabilize his toy copter. For decades, model aircraft had been notoriously difficult to pilot; Mr. Muñoz had built a device almost anyone could fly.
“I didn’t even know the word drone,” Mr. Muñoz says. “I called it a robotics helicopter.”
He then tried to sell his used Wii for $350 on a programmers’ forum to raise money for his next project, a model plane that could fly itself. His online posts, including videos and code he wrote, had earned him a prominent fan: Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired magazine and a leading advocate of the budding drone movement. Mr. Anderson sent Mr. Muñoz a $500 check, no strings attached.
By 2009, Mr. Muñoz had built a so-called autopilot system, the computer brains behind consumer drones. Later that year, he and Mr. Anderson founded 3D Robotics Inc., now the biggest consumer-drone maker in the U.S., with tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue, 300 employees and more than $100 million in venture capital.
The cofounders face a set of fierce rivals. Paris-based Parrot SA has captured the lower end of the market with camera drones that retail between $100 and $500. The industry juggernaut is SZ DJI Technology Co., a Chinese company that makes the world’s most popular camera drones, priced around $1,000. On Wednesday, DJI unveiled the latest product in its best-selling line of drones.
To compete, 3D Robotics is set to release its own new drone next week, dubbed the Solo and priced around $1,000. The company spent $10 million over 18 months on the black four-rotor helicopter.
Edited excerpts of an interview with Mr. Muñoz:
WSJ: You were born in Mexico to a middle-class family. How did you end up in California two decades later as an early inventor of the consumer drone?
Mr. Muñoz: I’ve been in love with aircraft since I had memory. At the same time, I was interested in electronics. I opened up toys to see how they work; my father allowed me to destroy all my toys.
When I was 16, I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. But it’s very difficult to get into Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute. I wasted two years in Mexico City trying, then came back to Tijuana and opened a fish-taco shop. When my father realized I had a taco shop, he forced me to sell it and sent me to a private university in Ensenada. I did one semester of computer engineering. Then my girlfriend got pregnant. She was an American citizen so we decided to raise the baby in the U.S.
WSJ: How did you build your first drone?
Mr. Muñoz: I was bored. I was in the immigration process, and you can’t leave the country, you can’t study, you can’t work. I started to learn microcontrollers. I felt there was something powerful about them. I discovered a tutorial on how to hack a Nintendo Wii and get the sensors to interface with microcontrollers. Then I was able to measure gravity, which is acceleration.
So now I had the guts of an airplane that knows orientation, and I had a remote helicopter that was very difficult to fly. It made sense to me to try to fuse everything. Why not? I had nothing to do.
When [the autopilot system] finally worked, that was probably the most amazing day. First I just sat in the grass and put the radio on and relaxed.
Then I blogged about it. People started asking for it and I saw an opportunity. I built 40 and created a Web store. I sold them in less than one hour. I sold them for $40 but they cost me like $5. I was as rich as I wanted to be.
WSJ: Model aircraft have been around for decades. How are drones different? Why have they become popular?
Mr. Muñoz: The complexity of a model helicopter is massive. A human cannot independently control four motors and try to balance them and be able to fly forward. Impossible. They’d crash. Drones transfer this mechanical complexity to the software. The software is doing all the difficult tasks of sensing and orientation in trying to stabilize it.
Normally, flying a model helicopter, you’re trying to keep it stable. A drone stays there for you, and you just tell it, like a videogame, move right or move left. Now a lawyer, a doctor, anybody can fly it.
WSJ: What are the biggest challenges in building a business around drones? Is negative public perception an issue?
Mr. Muñoz: Basically, we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re trying to make the best bets. We’re trying to cover everything according to the market, and see how people react. So we’re learning as we go. There is nothing more difficult than that.
When people see drones they have these ideas in their minds, conspiracy theories. But when they see the drone working, it’s like,“Ah, it’s not that bad. Can I fly it?” Or, actually,“I want one.” They change their minds. So it’s more about exposing them to the technology. I think people are going to get used to it, they just need time to get exposed.