The drone industry is one of the largest growing sectors in consumer technology. Just like smartphones had their time, just like tablets had their time, now is the era of the drone. Although there are a plethora of competing drone manufacturers, in 2016 one stands head and shoulders above the rest. That company, unlike most titans of the tech industry, is not headquartered in Silicon Valley, but in China.
Take one look at the newly-opened DJI Flagship store in Shenzhen, in China’s Guangdong Province, and you’ll feel as though you’re looking at a building from the future. Its geometric, glassy design resembles a chunk of precious stone, or a meteor fallen from the sky. Stepping inside, I’m greeted by sleek, curving lines and pure, clean white surfaces in all directions. The feeling that I’m in some kind of spaceport is difficult to shake, and that’s no accident. DJI’s slogan is ‘the future of possible’. As grammatically questionable as that statement may be, the company has certainly managed to propel itself to the bleeding edge of the consumer drone industry over the past decade, and it intends to stay there.
Founded by Frank Wang just ten short years ago, DJI (or Da-Jiang Innovations Science and Technology Co., Ltd, to give it its full name) has grown exponentially year-on-year, and is valued at more than US$8Billion today. Wang became obsessed with model airplanes at a young age. He had dreams of a ‘fairy’ device that would fly around with him, and begged his parents to buy him a remote controlled helicopter. They did, in what would become a formative experience for Wang, not because he mastered the techniques of flight but because he crashed his new toy almost immediately. The experience of tinkering with the broken helicopter and learning how to repair it would propel him into the career that would make him a billionaire.
Compared by many to Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple, a sign by Wang’s office reads “Those with brains only” and “Do not bring in emotions,” in Mandarin. To anyone familiar with Jobs, these tough, product-focused sentiments may resonate. Despite Wang’s Chinese heritage he looks to Japanese companies for inspiration, much like Jobs did in his youth. “Japanese craftsmen are constantly striving for perfection,” he told Forbes. “China has money, but its products are terrible, its service is terrible, and you have to pay a hefty price for anything that’s good.”
He’s not wrong. Many of the early drones out of China were terrible, and they didn’t do any favours for DJI overseas. What really acted as a catalyst to lift DJI from obscurity was the flight controller designed by Wang in his final year in university. The controller was a breakthrough, allowing the UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) to fly on its own – a user could let go of the controls and the UAV would hover in the air. Wang also pioneered the now-iconic Phantom quadcopter form factor, giving his drones much more stability than a traditional single-rotor helicopter.
With this technology in hand, DJI’s biggest challenge in its infancy was overcoming the perception of ‘cheap Chinese products’. In 2011 the company attended the International Toy Fair in Nuremburg, Germany, bundled in a secondary hall with other Chinese manufacturers. Amongst such a crowded field it was difficult to make an impression, but make an impression they did. 12 months later, they had landed a spot on the main floor, standing proudly amongst American and European companies. That elevation acted as a microcosm of DJI’s trajectory for the coming years.
I spoke to Adam Najberg, Global Director of Communications at DJI about how the company differentiated itself from its Chinese brethren. “It’s not just first-mover status that has made this company strong,” he told me. “At DJI, there’s a commitment to creativity and innovation. But I can’t stress enough that DJI’s greatest achievement was to take complex technology and make it easy to use. A Phantom flies right out of the box.”
The Phantom series is the jewel in DJI’s crown. The original Phantom was introduced in January 2013 and has been incrementally improved in each generation since. DJI’s website calls the latest generation, the Phantom 3, “the most accessible intelligent flying camera ever built.” Marketed as an affordable, easy-to-use first-time drone, the Phantom has been breaking sales records since its introduction.
Of course, high quality products come at a cost, and this is where DJI’s location has helped it to excel. Manufacturing and labour are both relatively cheap in China, and by maintaining strict quality control and building solid products, DJI has managed to strike an enviable balance of affordability and high build quality. This model, which is now being emulated by smartphone manufacturers such as Huawei, is one that US and European firms will struggle to compete with in years to come. Western companies have consistently prided themselves on superior quality products, but Wang has subverted that trope and proven that Chinese manufacturers can compete.
There have been a few hiccups along the way, most notably an incident where a DJI drone crashed on the lawn of the White House in early 2015, sparking security fears. The ensuing shake-up almost certainly resulted in the FAA’s plans to regulate all drones in the United States, a move that will likely move beyond US borders in years to come. Like all burgeoning industries, there are teething problems, but DJI is prepared for what’s to come, Najberg told me. “The most important thing, as the drone sector develops, is for rules and regulations to be made based on fact and reality,” he said, “rather than out of fear and misunderstanding.”
GoPro will aim to challenge DJI this year by entering the drone market with its own drone, called the ‘Karma.’ Little is known about the product yet, but it will struggle to compete with an established name like DJI. Another Chinese manufacturer, Yuneec, hopes to emulate DJI by moving from unmanned aircraft into drones, but currently has a relatively small foothold in the market.
Parrot, based in France, currently provide DJI’s main competition. But where Parrot has tended towards minidrones and smaller products, DJI has been scaling up and is now poised to muscle into the industrial drone market. Developers can use DJI’s open platform to develop applications for existing models, and the company recently announced the Agras MG1, a hexacopter that targets the agricultural sector and retails for around US$15,000.
With such a large emerging industry to conquer, there are sure to be many challenges to the throne as the market continues to grow. However, with a savvy technical mind at the helm and a good head start on its competitors, DJI will likely be a household name for many more years to come.