By Sarah Feldberg | Last Updated on
A tough, 3D-printed quadcopter
The Backstory: Putting tech to work
Retirement has been an adventure for Paul Sterbentz, the founder and sole employee of multicopter company Photoaire. After leaving Stanford University in 2010, Paul began working seriously on a tough drone frame that would take stunning video and cruise the skies for an extended period of time.
At first, pursuing his vision meant long days in the garage. “Every day I would spend 10 to 12 hours at the workbench, cutting frames by hand out of plastic. I did that for a couple of years,” Paul recalls. Eventually he began autocutting using a CNC machine, but it was 3D printing that transformed Paul’s business, allowing him to hone his designs and quickly fabricate new pieces to test out in his copters.
“I’ve always employed technology to make what I do better,” Paul says. “Printing saved me tons of time.”
Building the business: Know your niche
Along with developing his frame, Paul has had to find his niche in the burgeoning drone industry. He started by selling copters to scientists and Silicon Valley early adopters at the Baylands Park flying field, but recently he’s found a new market for his machines.
Working with Dave Jackson of Skyfly Innovations, Paul has connected with a drone security company whose founders saw Photoaire’s frame and instantly recognized an opportunity. Now, as Paul perfects his design, they’ve been buying the frames, reaching out to major companies and promoting the potential of the durable, lightweight quadcopters for surveillance and security.
Boosting quality: The right tools
For Photoaire, success depends on the ability to create a high quality product that meets customer expectations. Paul now runs two LulzBot Mini Printers in his workshop, and the middle of the Photoaire frame is 3D printed entirely using Voltivo ABS filament from Cubicity.
“I did a sidebyside print test with Voltivo and another competitor, and [the competitor] was not as good. They really have a good product,” Paul says. “My ability to improve the frame has gone up.”
For Paul, working with Cubicity also means connecting with the 3D printing community. “Most of these filament stores do filament, but they aren’t really enthusiasts,” he says. “It helps to have someone on the other end who understands the challenges.”
Using the right filament has resulted in copters that look and feel better to the end user. “My customers are getting more critical,” Paul explains. Today, he’s ready to meet high expectations head on.
Looking forward: Growth potential
What started as a hobby for Paul has developed into a second career and an exploration of 3D printing. His goal is to make Photoaire the only reasonably priced, waterproof copter on the market, and to establish a particular shape of his frame as the universal security drone.
It’s a big dream and one that was out of reach when he was putting in dozens of hours hand-cutting at the workbench. “It would’ve been impossible even three years ago to do what I’m doing today.”
However, the convenience of 3D printing does have one surprising downside: “I can’t stop making improvements because it’s so easy with 3D printing,” Paul says.