China’s DJI, the world’s largest maker of consumer drones, is opening a Silicon Valley research and development center in hopes of harnessing the wealth of robotics talent in the area…and identifying potential new partners and investment targets in the process.
DJI has hired two senior staffers to launch the Palo Alto, California office: former Tesla director of autopilot engineering Darren Liccardo and former Apple antenna-design team lead Rob Schlub.
DJI is not saying how big the R&D center will be, or how many people will work there. According to Fortune, the expectation is that the Palo Alto facility will be about 12,000 square feet and house at least 75 engineers, a fraction of the company’s global engineering workforce.
In May, the company announced it had teamed up with Accel Partners, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm, on the creation of SkyFund, a $10 million fund aimed at investing in startups building apps for DJI’s platform.
“We’re looking forward to really expanding our R&D efforts [in Silicon Valley] to take our products to the next level,” Liccardo says. “There’s a tremendous amount of activity here in the Valley around robotics, and new technologies that are very relevant to aerial robotics as well as other [forms of] robotics.”
Liccardo said DJI’s interest in the broad field of robotics doesn’t indicate that the company—which is expected to be the first billion-dollar drone maker—is moving beyond the flying vehicles. Rather, he says, the “energy” around robotics in Silicon Valley, as well as other technologies being developed for robotics, can be applied to drones and can lead to a number of compelling innovations across multiple industries and types of robots.
To Liccardo, who got a Master’s in unmanned aerial vehicle control from the University of California at Berkeley, Silicon Valley is also a hotbed of development for the kinds of sensing and perception technologies that he feels are part of the “closed loop” of robotics systems.
For the most part, the new R&D center will be focused on developing and identifying technologies that back up DJI’s larger, China-based product efforts. But Liccardo says he and his team will also have some autonomy for “exploring and scouting for new technologies and solutions.” He calls the balancing of supporting the home office and leading the drive for new technology a “yin and yang.”