Flying Autonomous But Not Alone

Since the dawn of time, mankind has wanted to fly. Now a growing group of enthusiasts are building their own aircraft that soar–and their pilots never leave the ground.

These pilots are building drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles), which first gained fame through their use in the military. Now readily available technology lets devotees take to the sky for photography, mapping, and even delivering love notes a la robotic carrier pigeons.

The place where they get together to share their passion is DIYDrones.com

The community’s founder is Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired Magazine and New York Times bestselling author of, The Long Tail and Free.

“I was on a journey of discovery about drones–and because I’m a web guy, my instinct was to do it in public. Five years earlier that would have meant writing a blog. But social networks are the way to go, so I decided to share my journey on Ning, a platform that allowed other people to join in.”

When Anderson started his community, he wanted a site that encouraged people to get involved. “I hoped that I would become the least important element of it… I wanted to start a conversation and let other people take it forward–and that’s what happened.”

Great minds, working together

Communities are about connections and relationships between members. And they’re flourishing in the DIY Drones community, which created the world’s first “universal autopilot.” That kinds of accomplishment required a space for great minds to collaborate..

“Our community has more than 100 developers who’ve created the largest Arduino program ever written. The beauty of Ning is that because it’s social, it’s peer to peer. Members can private message each other to create connections and work together, they don’t have to go through me,” says Anderson.

“Every member has a day job or another persona, but to scratch their drone itch they come here. Many come from Google or Microsoft by day, then work on open source drone code projects at night.We couldn’t have found them otherwise. And you couldn’t afford them, either. But because we did everything on Ning in a community site–they found us, and volunteered.

For me, the ultimate measure of our community is what we build together–aerospace quality technology by volunteers.”

New businesses

Anderson didn’t know this community would also change his life.

“I was able to quit my job to start and run this company. I wouldn’t be here without Ning.”

“My original hope for the community was that smart people would come together and create something amazing–and to my amazement that’s just what happened!,” he says.

Anderson’s Ning community introduced him to Jordi Muñoz, who became the co-founder and CEO of their new company, 3DRobotics. “Every day he used Google to see what other people were doing, but he couldn’t find anything. One day he Googled again and I had just started DIY Drones that same day. He found us. We probably had 30 members on the first day, and he posted a video of him flying a helicopter with a Wii controller,”explains Anderson.

“Today he’s co-CEO of a multimillion dollar company with 50 employees, three offices and two factories. Because we met and did all our work on Ning, I didn’t meet him face to face for two years and didn’t even know he was only 19 and living in Tijuana. It also didn’t matter.”

The company has raised $5 million dollars in venture capital, and puts more drones in the air every year than the entire US military fleet.

Creating opportunities

“By every measure I’ve achieved what I set out to do which was to make this the premiere location for information, people and projects around an emerging industry to fill a hole in the marketplace.

“We’ve not only started lots of projects, companies have grown out of our community.”

DIY Drones has become a breeding ground for new businesses. “We have dozens of members who started local companies that distribute equipment, as well as serving Hollywood, agriculture, search and rescue, police and fire.”

Running a community

DIY Drones has 34,000 members, and gets over 2 million pageviews a month. While it’s growing steadily and generating its own momentum, Anderson says, “A community is a process, you don’t start it and then hand it off. You run it every day and it can be a full time job on some levels.”

“Being a network creator means you’re the chief marketing officer. You have to use every tool at your disposal, social media being primary.”

“When users feel, ‘This is our home,’ the community becomes the site for sharing new information about Drones. Members post here first, then others link to their posts on other sites and it brings in new members.”

Anderson has more advice for other community creators:

  • “It helps to have a very clear focus to gather around. We identified an unfilled niche in the marketplace, and there’s no confusion about who we are and why you’d want to be there.”
  • “Make your homepage friendly for new users–we found that having more pictures helped them get a better idea of what we are doing.”
  • “To help run the site, we have a lot of moderators. To find moderators among your users, look for the most active, constructive–and helpful people. They need the kind of personality that’s gentle with others, good with newbies.”
  • “Send them a note, saying thanks for being such a great community member, and asking if they would like to be a moderator. We have a private group just for moderators where they learn how to do the job, what it requires, guidelines, stylesheets, and a private forum so they can discuss their challenges and help each other.”

As a long time magazine editor, Anderson has learned to look at a community as having a life of its own. “This isn’t the magazine I’d make if I made it all myself. It can go in directions that infuriate me and make me pull out my hair, but that’s the beauty of community–the marketplace votes and goes in its own direction.”