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Domestic drones rise under 3D Robotics

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San Diego-based 3D Robotics Inc. created a game changer for the drone industry: military-grade technology at toy prices.

CEO Chris Anderson, former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, delivered the keynote address at the Rock Stars of Innovation summit on Friday at the Hard Rock Hotel.

Anderson was an ideal speaker at Connect's day-long conference that attracts investors searching for the next big thing in technology.

Anderson hatched the domestic drone idea a few years ago while prototyping a Lego autopilot on the dining room table with his kids. Soon after, he enlisted the help of Jordi Muñoz, a 19-year-old whiz kid in Tijuana, to launch the business.

What started as a hobby has now exploded into a large-scale operation that sells more drones in six months than the entire U.S. drone military fleet of about 7,000 aircraft.

After raising $5 million late last year to speed up growth and expansion into new markets, Anderson quit his prestigious job at Wired to sit at the helm of 3D Robotics full time.

The company's home base is San Diego, but its manufacturing segment sits just south of the border.

The San Diego-Tijuana nexus exemplifies how American manufacturing is undergoing a “renaissance," he said.

Opting to assemble in Mexico over China means a shorter supply chain with faster, cheaper and more innovative products.

“Our money is not stuck in a supply chain or with a single design -- it can change on a day-to-day basis," Anderson said.

Many of the smartphone’s features, including sensors, cameras and GPS capabilities, have enabled the drone industry to accelerate.

“You couldn’t build an autopilot 10 years ago. It was unaffordable five years ago,” Anderson said. “The smartphone revolution is creating industries built on components that are faster, better and cheaper than we’ve ever seen before.”

Its $179 open source autopilot system, which essentially turns a car or boat into a drone, will one day be just $9.99 and “everywhere,” Anderson predicted.

A "disposable" or biodegradable drone -- one that collects Arctic climate data or drops supplies, for instance -- won't be created by the "Lockheeds" and other major aerospace players, he said.

“Theirs are better but ours are cheaper and more numerous,” he said.

He says the drone industry is mimicking what happened with computers decades ago.

"When you add words like ‘personal’ and ‘desktop’ you don’t just change the size and cost. You change the nature of the technology, taking them to a new class of user,” Anderson said.

The amateurs of the world will fill in the blanks for new applications to make drones mainstream.

“When you democratize technology you find out what it’s for because regular people have better ideas than developers do. They have more context," Anderson said.

Another application could solve the age-old problem of crashed model airplanes. Geofencing creates barriers for the plane to fly in to avoid impact with the ground.

“The autopilot takes over control and snaps it back into position in a return spot waiting for the kid to take control,” he said. “That is a great safety measure. It won’t fly away.”

He showed a clip from the futuristic flick “Looper” that features a drone crop sprayer flying above a farm, but that use is not far off from becoming commonplace. UC Davis already uses drones for agricultural spraying and fertilizing.

The unmanned industry calls agriculture the ideal industry for drones because it has the highest economic potential with the lowest regulator barriers.

Drones that take daily surveillance photos of crops could help prevent over spraying by targeting spots where disease exists, he explains.

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