Mexican start-up firm wants to become a drone industry leader

Pilotless crafts are sold to hobbyists as well as farmers to monitor their crops

For just $600 you can own your own drone. 3D Robotics, based in Tijuana, Mexico, has gone into the business of selling drones to hobbyists and firms that want to use these pilotless crafts for a variety of purposes.

Owned by Chris Anderson, a former editor of the magazine Wired, and Jordi Muñoz from Mexico, 3D Robotics offers drones for as much as $1,300. The most expensive model has six engines and can carry up to one-and-a-half kilos of weight.

The drones can be used to monitor and record images of sites from above.

“We have made a product that is easy to operate. It is intuitively designed, and can be used by artists, architects and scientists,” explained José Guillermo Romero Méndez, the company’s general manager.

“Our clients are hobbyists and people who are experts with robots, but we have a range of other buyers. We want this product to be sold to everyone,” he said.

3D Robotics got started on the internet with a website run by Anderson called DIYDrones, while a young Muñoz uploaded a video of a toy helicopter that he had fashioned himself using a Nintendo Wii control. Anderson and his partner began the company while he was still working as an editor for Wired. Today, 3D Robotics employs more than 70 people on both sides of this border city with San Diego, California. He left the magazine last year.

“Like many Americans, until recently, when I heard ‘Tijuana’ I thought of only drug cartels and cheap tequila. ‘TJ,’ though, is a city of more than two million people (larger than neighboring San Diego), and it has become North America’s electronics assembly hotspot,” he wrote in January in The New York Times.

The company hopes that famers will start using drones to scout their land to determine what plots need watering. Some 200 drones are being sold each month. “We have orders from the smallest island in the Pacific,” said Romero.

The US government doesn’t allow drones to fly over populated areas or near airports but not everyone adheres to the law. Last year, at least three commercial pilots reported private drones flying near their planes to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Stricter laws will be enacted by 2015.

The drone industry has also captured the attention of Google, which announced last week that it was investing some $10.7 million in Airware, a company that develops intelligence systems for drones and has constructed aircraft weighing 32 grams. The company has used pilotless crafts to develop Google Maps.

Nevertheless, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt said that he didn’t agree that drones should be made for sale to the general public.

“You're having a dispute with your neighbor," he told The Guardian in April. "How would you feel if your neighbor went over and bought a commercial observation drone that they can launch from their back yard? It just flies over your house all day. How would you feel about it?"

As an example, Schmidt said that Google engineers came up with a facial recognition tool that was stopped because it was illegal in some parts of the world, including Europe.

“Facial recognition, completely unmonitored, can be used for very bad things," he said. "It can be used for stalking, for example. You know, it's just we don't want to be part of that as a company. There are cases where facial recognition can be used, but they need to be fairly carefully boxed."

But Romero said that the drones 3D Robotics creates are not sold to cause anyone any injury “although this doesn’t prevent anyone from doing so.”

“But you don’t need a drone to cause damage. You could also use a car for that purpose,” he said.

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