Commercial drones — the type you can order from your local big box retailer and control with a smartphone, tablet, or radio remote — are practically a commodity nowadays. Manufacturers from incumbents like DJI to newcomers like GoPro are vying for slice of a market that analysts project will exceed $127 billion by the end of this year. Sales of drones are projected to hit 7 million in 2020, a 180 percent increase from 2016. The competition, unsurprisingly, is cutthroat.
But while drones at the enthusiast level have become a dime a dozen, models geared specifically toward young beginners are still a bit harder to come by. There are colorful one-offs like the KiiToys Drone RC Helicopter and ruggedized lines like X10 Drone RC Helicopter Toy Air, but few, if any, have approached the level of robustness offered by their pricier counterparts. Most kid-friendly drones have been afterthoughts, in a word.
It’s a pejorative that Flybrix, a San Francisco startup founded by engineering alums from MIT and Caltech, have tried consciously to avoid. And at the very least in terms of originality, they seem to have succeeded. The company’s first drone, the eponymous Flybrix, is the world’s first constructed almost entirely out of Lego bricks. “It’s the only buildable, crash-friendly drone,” chief marketing officer Holly Kasun explained to Digital Trends in a telephone interview. “There’s nothing on the market like it.”
The concept is just as bizarrely brilliant as it sounds. Flybrix ships in one of two kits containing every component necessary to need piece together a working drone. In addition to an assortment of the aforementioned Legos, that includes quick-connect motors and propellers, an Arduino-powered flight control circuit, a quick start guide, and miscellaneous accessories like batteries, connectors, USB cords, and a prop wrench.
It’s a veritable playground of drone parts, but kid pilots won’t be flying blind. Included are step-by-step blueprints for designs of increasing complexity: a quadcopter, hexacopter, and octocopter. And piloting is guided by a companion smartphone app that illustrates the basics of flight.
Flybrix was a project borne of almost of necessity. Kasun and the company’s two other co-founders, Amir Hirsch and Robb Walters, struggled to find a drone on the market with a durable, modular design that didn’t require an extensive knowledge of the electronics behind it. The determined trio set out to make their own. “[We] wanted to make a telescoping experience,” Kasun said. “[You’d] build your own drones, get an idea of what the build and flying experience is like, and then get into the intermediate aspects of design and tweaking.”
It took time to find a balance. The Flybrix team spent months iterating at Lemnos Labs, a San Francisco-based incubator, managed to attract the backing of Chinese venture capital firms Lab 360 and Idea Bulb, and distributed 100 drones as part of a limited alpha test. After soliciting feedback from testers, making subsequent refinements (like adding Bluetooth connectivity), and securing production contracts, Flybrix launched in beta. Now, almost a year later, the team is confident the drone is ready for the broader market.
And that market is not just kids. Drone dilettantes who master the fundamentals can move beyond Lego to soldered components. The degree of customization is impressive — Flybrix supports components like GPS, Wi-Fi, and an SD Card, and even color-changing LEDs. And builders with a bit of programming know-how can tweak Flybrix’s Arduino flight computer using block programming languages like Tickle and Scratch. (The company published the source code under an open source license earlier this year.
“You can basically go from top to bottom,” Kasun said.
Flybrix at its core is about experimentation, Kasun. “We’re hoping owners expand on our designs in ways we don’t expect,” she said. “We want to see people feel comfortable trying new things.” And it’s about failing every once in a while, too. “We want kids to understand why a design didn’t work,” Kasun said, “and learn how they can improve.”
Those sentiments are in keeping with Flybrix’s expressed mission: to foster the development of in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. Kasun, citing statistics from the United States Department of Commerce, said that STEM occupations are projected to grow by 17 percent by 2018. “Flying toy drones is fun, but when you can use your imagination and make your own drone from Lego bricks and fly it, it’s an amazing thrill,” she said. “The experience of building, flying, crashing, and rebuilding as a creative way for parents, kids, and teachers to harness the power of play to learn tech and engineering — that’s out goal.”
A basic Flybrix kit — one that includes motors, Legos, and all of the other aforementioned pack-ins — starts at $150. A deluxe kit, which adds a physical control with programmable joysticks, buttons, and triggers, is available $190. They both begin shipping today from Flybrix.com.