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.”