Just a startup in 2011, the Chinese drone-maker now controls 70 percent of the market, blowing away the American competition. This is how they did it.
1. The Best Tech
The stereotype is that Chinese manufacturers have a pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap attitude with little thought for quality. Instead, DJI has gone for technical superiority, progressing from 8-bit to 32-bit microprocessors and incorporating powerful dedicated digital signal processors. Aramballa, best known for making the chips that power GoPro cameras, supplies the processors that allow DJI’s cameras to capture and stream 4K video at high frame rates. DJI also works directly with Taiwanese chip designer MediaTek, and WT Microelectronics, another market leader.
2. Pro-Level Apps
DJI drones can use some powerful commercial software, and we’re not talking about just making movies. The Pix4Dmapper App is something that professionals with big, powerful drones use to build a 3D model of the terrain below out of data from a drone’s camera. But even a DJI Phantom 2 with Pix4Dmapper can map a six-acre property in a single 20-minute flight from an altitude of 150 feet, and construct a precise 3D model with a one-inch resolution. This technology is handy for architects and builders, as well as archaeologists, who can now map an entire castle inside and out from above. The same software allows a surveyor to fly over a stockpile of timber or bricks and measure its volume in a fraction of the time needed for traditional techniques.
3. Developers, Developers, Developers
While many manufacturers discourage ‘hacks’ or hardware modifications to their products, DJI released a drone called Matrice 100 specifically for developers. Matrice is designed to easily accommodate new payloads, like sensors and communications gear, and its flight-control software is simple to reprogram. The idea is to build a community of developers all producing a steady stream of upgrades that will be compatible with DJI products.
4. Send Drones Where They’re Needed
Not everybody who would use a drone is necessarily ready to fly a drone. That’s why DJI’s SkyFund put money into a startup called DroneBase, which is like a drone version of Uber. DroneBase allows anyone who wants to take photos from a drone to link up with a drone pilot in their area. Typical requests involve real estate promotion, construction, mapping, and terrain modelling. Customers get the shots they want without having to buy a drone, the drone operators get business, and DJI watches the market for drone photography expand.
5. Get A Good Lawyer
Lots of publications, us included, report the frequent news stories about drones going where they shouldn’t, such as the White House lawn or into the flight path of an aircraft. Given the ongoing strife, it is no surprise that earlier this year DJI took on Brendan Schulman as vice president of policy & legal affairs. Schulman has represented individuals and companies in landmark drone cases, and helped establish a drone legal practice. Described as “America’s first drone defense lawyer,” Schulman is known for taking on the FAA in cases of alleged unlicensed use of drones. Now he represents the biggest drone-maker out there by far.
6. Expand Into New Areas
Video drones were just the start. Now DJI has set its sights on an even more lucrative market: agricultural drones. The $15,000 Agras MG-1, launched last month, is a much bigger craft than DJI’s previous drones, with eight rotors and the capacity to carry 2.5 gallons for crop-spraying.
Precision agriculture is the name of the game here: Farmers need to spray pesticide or fertilizer only where it is needed. Microwave radar gives the Agras inch-perfect accuracy, and according to DJI, it covers ten acres an hour, making it “40 times more-efficient than manual spraying.” The company is selling Agras in China and South Korea first, and later will offer it to the rest of the world.