Hardware the Hard Way

Hardware the Hard Way


Aside from helming Wired MAGAZINE, Chris Anderson is Well Known to makers as co-founder of the DIY Drones community of unmanned aerial vehicle enthusiasts.

Collaborating at diydrones.com, in 2008 the group revolutionized amateur robotics by creating a drone autopilot based on the cheap, open source Arduino microcontroller (see MAKE Volume 19). The ArduPilot turns any R/C plane or copter into a fully autonomous UAV.

Anderson sees a future where robotic aviation is ubiquitous. He created the first DIY kits using the ArduPilot, then founded 3D Robotics, a company making parts, kits, and ready-to-fly UAVs. We asked him what he’s learned.

You’re a DIY robot enthusiast who became a hardware manufacturer and kit maker. Any lessons to share with aspiring kit makers?

Well, I created exactly one kit myself: the robot blimp, on the dining room table, with my children doing the packing. That was a horrible mistake — do not put a 5-year-old in charge of packing.

The biggest lesson is that I should not be creating kits. The DIY Drones community is developing amazing technologies like the ArduPilot. We’ve created a business with several large factories creating kits, and they do it much better than me and my kids.

I’m chair of 3D Robotics, which makes the ArduCopter kit brain, and we work with others who make their own kits. We’ve got more than 120 different SKUs. It’s a multimillion-dollar operation now; some are kits, some are just boards.

What tipped your decision to sell UAV kits, rather than just share designs?

Three or four years ago I built the Blimpduino. I had the idea that you could have an autonomous blimp that would fly around in schools, and it would be great for teaching kids about robotics.

So we designed the board, and we put the Eagle files up, and said here’s a link to SparkFun’s BatchPCB, here’s the parts list to buy from Mouser and Digi-Key, and here are the instructions for putting it all together.

That’s when we realized it was too hard — people just weren’t going to do it. We had to build the board for people.

I made about three boards and said, “I’m never doing that again.” So we got a contract manufacturer, and found out that you really have to order at scale to get pricing. We got the money together to buy 500 boards — you have to make a leap of faith, take some capital risk to get the volume. It was a little scary.

Then we realized that sourcing the other parts is also hard. Regular folks have no experience in it. I spent a ridiculous amount of time learning the economics of mylar balloons. The learning curve is steep and expensive.

Kitting it was the only way to really get it into people’s hands.

What did it take to make that first kit?

The blimp envelope, the laser-cut parts, the motors — it was the same process sourcing these. We had to work with Chinese manufacturers through Alibaba to get the motors. It took months to get all the boxes of components. This meant volume ordering from a dozen different suppliers, getting samples, building test boards — all before we could sell the first kit.

Eventually we got all the parts, got the boards built and tested, the firmware loaded, labels printed, and at that point I bribed the children for $1 an hour. We labeled all the parts and set up an assembly line on the dining room table. I was doing quality control, but in the end, despite all our efforts, about half the kits were missing a part. I spent months sending out extra Lego parts or motors to people. I think it’s cute that a 5-year-old forgot to put in a part, but the customer might not be as charmed.

Now we have factories in San Diego, Tijuana, and Bangkok, running professional assembly and packing operations so we can keep the customer happy and actually keep these things in stock.

What lessons did you learn the hard way?

Sourcing parts is expensive. You have to buy wholesale to sell retail, which means buying in volume — in the thousands to get decent pricing — and that’s capital risk, especially if you make a design mistake. You have to make a bet that you’re going to sell a lot of them. You have to explain to your wife or husband why you just put $10,000 on the credit card.

Hand assembly means you’re in the assembly line business, and you’ll spend a lot of time making sure everything gets into the kit.

Often, worse than failing is succeeding. This is not a one-time exercise — if you create 1,000 kits and succeed, you’ve got to do it again! The third time, I had to pay the kids way more than $1 an hour. As a kit maker you may discover that the worst thing that can happen is that these things become popular: “Oh no, we can’t keep them in stock!”

Don’t forget to sell it for a profit.

What would you do differently?

I wouldn’t do it myself next time; that’s why we started the company. Lines of credit, efficient sourcing, anti-static procedures, dealing with holidays in China …

If you really want to make a kit that lots of people will enjoy and you’ll continue to sell over the years, it will quickly get too big for the kitchen table. Find a commercial partner that really cares about quality control. It’s a real business involving paid professionals doing quality assurance, answering customer support calls, ensuring that this thing is good and stays in stock. As enticing as it is to create a kit, it quickly becomes unfun if it’s successful.

Also, the tech support on kits is a nightmare. It imposes a huge aftermarket burden: you’ve got to help people fix it, or take back kits.

In this issue, MIT’s Michael Schrage says that kit makers like DIY Drones suggest a robotics future “more varied and ‘out of control’ than anything envisioned inside the Pentagon.”

Do you see amateur UAVs getting out of control? (I’m thinking of the so-called drone terrorist arrested by the FBI.)

First off, there’s no evidence that that guy had GPS or anything other than an R/C plane.

We don’t control the use of this technology; our kits are not locked down. If you buy a commercial autopilot you can lock it from going to certain places, but that’s antithetical to our vision of openness. We have really strong guidelines to ban and report any activity using UAVs in dangerous ways or as weapons.

Openness means most people will use it for good, and some will use it for bad, but that’s true of any tool: computers, cellphones, even hammers. There are those who want to ban technology and ban the maker instinct.

So what’s the future of UAVs in the hands of amateurs?

We started with kits, but we’re very quickly moving toward Plug and Play — there’s two orders of magnitude difference in the sizes of those markets. If you have to put two parts together, you’ve eliminated half your market — and if you have to solder something, you’ve eliminated 99.9 percent of your potential market!

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