3D Robotics

Announcing the next era at 3D Robotics

3689485855?profile=originalYou may have seen the news that 3D Robotics has just announced a $30 million Series B investment, led by some blue-chip VC firms, including Foundry and True (investors in MakerBot and other open source companies such as WordPress/Automattic). You can see Foundry's announcement post here.

This is our second funding round (the Series A was November last year), and each round reflects a new era of the company. Because 3DR started in this community, which I created one weekend six years ago, I wanted to take a moment to talk a little about our evolution as a company and what it means for users, developers and the community as a whole. 

Our first phase as a company (2009) was led by my co-founder, Jordi Munoz, and it looked like this:

3689550687?profile=originalJordi hand-soldering original ArduPilot shields

3689550760?profile=originalMy kids packing up Blimpduino kits at the dining room table

Jordi then built up a proper manufacturing operation, taking it to this by 2012:


At this point 3D Robotics was still selling mostly electronics, essentially bare boards and "bags of parts" kits, much like our role models at Sparkfun and Adafruit.  But it was clear that the industry was growing up and was ready to go more mainstream. So on the basis of that and our progress so far, we raised our Series A round in December 2012 and I came onboard as CEO nine months ago. 

Our mission over the past nine months has been to professionalize the company and our products, and although that's far from done we've made a lot of progress. On the company side, this meant new websites, ecommerce systems, improvements in customer support (still a work in progress but we've shortened response times and moved to Zendesk to track issues better), and most importantly, the opening of our big new manufacturing facility in Tijuana.


On the community side, we've sponsored the software dev teams, the documentation teams and the community management teams here, on the new ArduPilot.com documentation sites and on the GitHub dev repository. 3DR just sells the "atoms" (the hardware) while this open source community creates and gives away the "bits" (the software), but as a company we've worked hard to support the community in every way we can to encourage a healthy community/company partnership. (We're modeled after WordPress/Automattic in this respect).

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the hundreds of developers, editors, moderators, beta testers and other volunteers who have created such an extraordinary thing here: the software teams, the documentation teams and everywhere else where the open innovation model has worked so well to serve a community of nearly 44,000 members. Our commitment is to use our funding to help make this community even better, by investing more in the open innovation model. As we have from the start, we'll continue doing what we can to help people here help each other, following the lead of open source models from Linux to Adafruit and our original mentors at Arduino. 

On the product side, the last year has seen the development (with ETH) of our next-gen autopilot, Pixhawk, and the consumer-friendly Iris autonomous quadcopter designed for tablet/phone use, and a suite of software that will be announced soon as part of the Iris Consumer Edition. 

That brings us to our third phase, which starts now: not just creating drones, but putting them to work. This means finding new applications for aerial robotics by creating entire systems, from the cloud to tablets/phones to communications systems to more sophisticated aircraft systems and payloads. From Agriculture to Hollywood, this is where the real opportunity lies. 

I feel we're like the PC industry in 1983. As an industry, we've come close to taking drones from industrial equipment or hobbyist gear (from the mainframes to the Apple II of the late 70s) to the first Macintosh, making them consumer friendly and easy to use. Now that drones are not just for the technically sophisticated anymore, it's time to find out what they can really do, by putting them in the hands of regular people, from GoPro owners to farmers, and see how they use "anywhere, anytime access to the skies" to discover new applications and markets, much as we did with computers after the original IBM PC and the Mac.

In short, this is just the beginning. I couldn't be more thrilled to embark on our next chapter. 

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  • 3D Robotics

    Andy: This isn't a product support thread. Please PM me with your ticket number and I can escalate it to a manager. 

  • +1

  • Congrats!! Yes I think some developers need to be paid accordingly also. Great community.

  • 3D Robotics

    John, thanks for the good questions: I'm glad to explain these things, which many people may not have understood. 

    As far as secrecy goes, we don't pre-announce hardware for obvious reasons ("Osborne effect"), but we're super open about software. The software dev list is open to all and all the discussion on what's in 3.1 is there. The only unreleased software that is not revealed until beta is that supporting as-yet-unannounced hardware

    The "exclusive relationship" with ETH is just that we're their exclusive hardware manufacturer. Everything remains entirely open source, and others can make clone hardware, it's just that the official distro will support the 3DR hardware. Others are free and even encouraged to make their own distros supporting other hardware, and they can distribute those distros themselves. 

    I think there is some misinformation about the Aeroquad experiment. The original ArduCopter 1.0 was indeed a collaboration with Aeroquad, but that was abandoned in 2010 (the developers couldn't see a good path to autonomy with that code) and ArduCopter was re-started from scratch on our own ArduPlane codebase for the 2.0 release. As far as I know there is no Aeroquad code in the current ArduCopter codebase and there hasn't been for three years or more.

    Finally, the question of how we can remain profitable while bearing the costs of the software development ourselves while cloners, who have no such costs, undercut us. Our strategy is to offer a superior product, starting with enclosures (not bare boards), then full RTF vehicles and soon entire systems. The further up the value chain we go, the harder it is for low-value cloners to copy. This "package" approach is one that gives consumers a better experience while keeping the core platform open, as has been our commitment from the start.  The better experience we can offer consumers, the better we will do. 

  • Chris: Thanks for the information you provided, it did  shed some light.

     With respect to your view that cloners do not contribute anything, I’d have to disagree,  they do contribute, indirectly. Check out for instance the RCTimer thread on RC groups (an indirect and a by-product of cloners) : There is first rate documentation on APM set-up, many recommended mods on both the core board and peripherals (e.g. minimosd connectors), constructive criticism on board design, upgraded products (e.g. current sensor, upcoming dome with integrated anti-vibration), etc …   And offering products at a lesser price  is, albeit indirectly,  a contribution to the community.  Spending $100 on  something  is the same as spending $200 on something and being paid $100. More people can afford it, more people fly, the community grows …

    This is not to say that I have an issue with 3DR being more expensive. I know you don’t have the choice, and that at clone prices you would be under in a heartbeat.  But here’s one problem, and this is where the commercial nature of 3DR, and now VCs,  come in. (For the record and to quicly address other comments: I have zero problems with VCs, they have a very important role in our economy.  Nor do I have problems with the possibility of individuals getting mega rich from commercial ventures. To make it really short and avoid sidetracks that’s the American way afaik and I like it, there are excesses sometimes that I dislike but that’s another story).

    Back to the problem: As you know, VCs want and only care about one thing: profit growth (as they should). Now how can 3DR grow and profit? Well 3DR can’t  make profits with products that are either close or “semi” close source because of the historical open source licenses on arducopter, arduplane, etc …  ( Besides it does not seem you want to do  that anyways even if you could).

    But it can profit by being “ first to market” , knowing full well that there’s  only a small window before the clones will arrive.  And one way 3DR can  sorta kinda expand that window, wading through definitely muddy waters,  is by being secretive, or  being stingy with open source information.

    This is *clearly* not compatible with open source,  heck, the contradiction is in the very definition: Secret =/ open. And definitely not benefiting the community. Yet we are starting to see this, eg. Iris (secretive), pixHawk (information, “exclusive deal”), and what developers are currently working on for the next version (Don’t have time to look for the post, but I clearly remember a user asking a developer what was coming in 3.1 and the developer stating he was not ready to reveal it). And with VC’s in the mix, the need to do this will only increase. And this is where 3DR will exclusively benefit, and the community will lose. Lose it all? Of course not.  But a shame and a loss nonetheless, hence my reaction. And my pointing out that cloners can and will mitigate it. Seems like a healthy counter balance to the commercial “more, more, more (profits)”, not one aimed at “killing”  3DR (no risk of that (-:  …) but one aimed at users getting  more for their money.

    On the subject of developers getting direct benefits: that’s great news. Here’s a question I have a hard time answering. Does this mean, if they are paid, that they now have a direct responsibility to assist users? Up to now, we’ve seen how the occasional impatient or demanding user would be told, appropriately imho, that nobody owed him/her anything, as everyone was a volunteer, this is open source, etc …  Can this argument still be made? If it is still made, 3DR is directly benefiting,  by cutting support costs, something VC’s or any commercial venture loves, at the expense of the user. Another “loss” for the user. If it cannot be made, 3DR has a responsibility to step up and be more open about its support structure.

    As far as APM being “bought”, I wasn’t  referring to APM but the open source code base taken over from aeroquad in 2010.

  • Chris,

    I applaud your efforts.  You truly are revolutionizing the way that people are exposed to drones and the community that has evolved is nothing short of amazing.  One of the biggest reasons I have so much respect for you is that even though you are such a busy guy and run this multi-million dollar business, you still take the time to come on the website to chat and answer questions that any user has good or bad.  That alone speaks volumes for the direction your company is going.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Developer

    I'm an unpaid hobby developer (Andropilot & Droneshare & some other things for 3dr related projects) and haven't followed this thread entirely.  However, the whining I see come from folks who seem to think that somehow developers should be upset about this?  I just don't see it, the developers are mostly making software here because of the friendly developer community.  

    If people want to yell about evils of VCs and Silicon Valley (which is actually a nice place and even most VCs are nice), then I think they should give up computers, cell phone and much of linux.  Because VCs made those things possible.  If 3DR is able to grow and become a large profitable entity I think that would be awesome.

  • If you can demonstrate anything that's been said so far to be _false_, please do so, so as to correct mistaken impressions.

    And here I thought, delivering proof was the obligation of the accuser... Thank you so much for demonstrating of what disposition you are.

    Besides - nothing and nobody stops you from starting a community website yourself. Let the users decide, what they prefer, but of course, writing accusations without proving is so much easier than actually creating something.

  • > What I find quite interesting about all this lament I have read here now is that actually none of the core developers or contributors are complaining.

    The handful of core development architects are 3DR employees now. Many past contributors aren't going to comment because they've (a) voted with their feet; (b) don't wish to air their grievances publicly. If you can demonstrate anything that's been said so far to be _false_, please do so, so as to correct mistaken impressions. You don't need to impugn the dissenters' motivations to settle the score on behalf of "the home team". If you're disgusted with the "culture", then one need look only to the origin of disappointment at the heart of that culture and remedy it appropriately. Not just paper over it with appeasing or teasing words. [And for the record: yep, I am quite well-informed as to who gets paid and who doesn't.]

    As for myself, where someone called my dissent before "suspicious" -- I'm obviously more on the purist end of the open-source spectrum, but my stake is as a user and (distant past) contributor. And my complaint is that there was something REALLY cool here, before ambitions of industrial devices and marketshare and flight schools and mass worldwide sales and VC investments and media visionary dreams. None of those things are anything but extremely tangentially related to a community open-source project; and if they help it, they help it incidentally.

    The value _here_ is in the community, not in PX4 or other knock-on derivatives that do little more than mimic each other's incremental capabilities and price points. And while the product (3DR's) underlying DIYD has come a long way in the last year of VC investment, I don't think DIYD particularly has. Why? Because despite being a "not-for-profit", DIYD is controlled by a for-profit whose ambitions and attention now lie decidedly elsewhere.

    I really like Mike's comment before about crowdfunding and being more innovative than just going by the Silicon Valley playbook. With respect to the community, I've an alternative proposition in this vein. Now is an opportune time to have a serious discussion about the severance of the umbilical cord of DIYD from 3DR. Of course that's not totally possible on the surface, but the point is that if this website is a non-profit, its community must be *run* by a non-profit consisting of stakeholder community members endowed with real authority to steer the course. This is the only legitimate way to guard against the very significant moral hazards that have been introduced in the last year into this ecosystem. This is the only alternative beyond "trust us, this time with X money everyone will be happy".

    Chris founded this community, no question. But others gave -- and give -- it life. As Chris moves on to bigger non-DIY projects, it behooves a community to reconstitute itself to grow accordingly. Chris should be on the bridge of that ship, but so should others. (And no, before the obvious slight is made: I'm not talking about myself.)

    This can be done, and done well--though I've little confidence it will be without significant outcry.

    So to sum: 3DR is doing fine. As a community, let's focus on DIYD and figure out how it can grow as well beyond exclusivity agreements, RTF devices and support for 3DR products.

  • 3D Robotics

    Steven G: We're aware that a few customers aren't seen the standard USPS options, and the tech team is working hard to find out why. If you can PM me your tech support issue number, I can escalate to a manager to resolve. 

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