Alex Rodriguez has seen the future and it can fly. Rodriguez is the owner and founder of Urban Drones, a Florida-based company that caters to the drone hobbyist seeking to master the craft of drone technology – a technology that is a fast changing culture and business. “Every so often, humans come up with a technology that changes the way we live. Think of electricity in the late 1800’s, aviation in the early 1900’s, oil in 1859, and the internet; I believe that drone technology is the major development of our generation,” said Rodriguez from his Florida offices.
Drones have become a technological novelty associated with everything from military operations to breathtaking nature footage and overhead concert shots. One look at the Urban Drones website and the scope of drone technology becomes apparent from the wide range of accessories and models available to enthusiasts. For Rodriguez, the project began ten years ago when he was simply trying out a hobby. “It all started in 2007 when I got into flying remote control airplanes. Within a week of starting, I wanted to put a camera on it, not only to record, but to see a live video feed from the airplane. After a quick google search, I found an underground community that was already hacking security camera systems and video transmitters to do exactly what I wanted to do,” explained Rodriguez.
At the time the now-common, multi-rotor drone design did not yet exist. The typical drone model had fixed wings and looked like a small airplane. “Getting parts was a nightmare since there were almost no suppliers and you had to wait weeks, sometimes months for replacement parts. At the end of 2011, I grew frustrated with how hard it was to get the parts, so I founded Urban Drones: a place to get good quality drone parts, fast,” remembered Rodriguez. He began contacting suppliers in China and launched a website with the hope of making extra money to fuel his hobby. Within a week, Rodriguez’s inventory was sold out. Already a full-time producer at a local TV station, Rodriguez suddenly found himself juggling a grueling studio schedule with a booming online business.
Despite the work hours, Rodriguez partnered with electronics engineers and Chinese suppliers to design new parts and ultimately bring in new supplies. “I had to work from 5:30 p.m. ‘till sometimes 4:00 a.m. to fill orders, answer emails and talk to suppliers in China. To make original products, I partnered with a friend that was an electronics engineer.” They soon began designing new equipment based on their preferences for better drone flying, such as the Urban Drones on Screen Display, which allows a user to monitor the health of a drone during its flight. Other innovations included a light control system for night flights, a tracker which allows a user’s antenna to be automatically turned towards the direction of the drone and a long range control system that allowed drones to cover distances of up to 20 miles.
But juggling careers and passions soon took a toll on Rodriguez. He had to choose which road to take. “I practically had two full time jobs for several years and for a while started hating what I once loved. That changed when I quit my day job in 2014 and went all in on the company,” he said. Booming business Urban Drones now caters to enthusiasts in the United States and internationally.
Rodriguez’s company is part of the dawning of a new technological era which is slowly impacting society. “In the next 30 years, drone technology is going to completely change the way we work, the way we move from place to place and even the way we grow food. I cannot think of many things that will not be directly or indirectly impacted by this technology, so I don’t think it will take anyone’s job away, it’s just going to change it,” said Rodriguez about how what may seem as a mere hobby is having wider effects. Food deliveries, rescue operations and even firefighting capabilities are already being altered positively by these flying robots.
The drone technology Urban Drones specializes in is accessible and efficient, for laymen and seasoned pros alike. Rodriguez pointed out that, “Believe it or not a lot of times, a hobby drone is more capable than a military drone. In fact, hobby drones have some of the same exact parts as military drones which literally cost tens of thousands more.”
It can be a thrilling experience for the enthusiast. There is a special way in which Rodriguez describes this new and advanced human experience. “How much would you pay to get into a hobby that will allow you to immerse yourself behind video goggles and feel like you’re flying like a bird?” he pondered. The sport of drone racing has become a favorite. “Having a 7 inch quadcopter fly inches away from your face at 60 to 80 miles an hour will blow your mind. It’s also this area [racing] that is pushing the capability of drones the furthest.”
The two key camps of drone users are those who like to race them and who use drones for high quality photography. The technology has grown so fast that four years ago a drone capable of shooting photos in 4K resolution could cost $30,000 and fly for eight minutes, whereas today a model that can fly for 20 minutes and shoot 4K photography will cost $3,000. “This is Moore’s law on steroids,” observed Rodriguez. Like a well-kept computer, a drone that is treated with care can last years. The number one threat to its survival is, of course, a crash.
Urban Drone’s new Splash Drone 3 is an example of the latest innovation being offered by the company. It is amphibious, to the point where the site advertises the drone for fishing trips. There’s still more to do and discover however. “I would love to see someone create a drone that can swim under water, fly in the air and be both autonomous and remote control,” said Rodriguez. “If you want to go fast, you get a Porsche, but you can’t bring the family since it’s only a two seater. For that you need a minivan. Drones are the same, if you want to fly fast, between tree branches and have the freedom to loop around, you should get a racing drone, but each flight is going to be about 4 minutes. If you want to get really cool shots while flying relatively slow for 20 minutes, you can get a photography drone.”
The way Rodriguez describes it, drone technology is in an initial phase similar to when personal computers first began hitting the market. “This same hobby can teach you a technology that will be ubiquitous in the next 10 years. It would be like investing in a personal computer in 1991, the best investment my mom ever made,” said Rodriguez.
Amid the technological possibilities and advances, there is one simple reason Rodriguez gives for getting into drone flying. “Just to have fun.”
Urban Drones in partnership with SwellPro Team raised $195,000 on Kickstarter to produce the Splash Drone 3, worldwide the first waterproof drone. (www.urbandrones.com)