DJI dominates the market, producing over 70% of all consumer drones worldwide
Laxer regulations in China means it's easier for DJI to test drones
Drones are being used in a wide array of industries from logistics to the media
Time and time again we hear that distinctive buzz.
It seems these days, anyone – with a few hundred dollars to spare – can be a proud owner of a small, recreational unmanned aircraft.
And when you hear that telltale hum, it’s more than likely from a camera drone made by China’s DJI.
The company behind the sleek Phantom is the leader in consumer drones with well over 70% of the global market.
“We innovated with our Phantoms, with our drone line and with our professional line of cinema equipment,” DJI product manager Paul Pan tells me at company headquarters in Shenzhen.
“It comes down to us being seen not as a Chinese company but as an international player.”
The China advantage
Though DJI underplays its Chinese origins with its Western-friendly corporate branding, the company admits that being based in Shenzhen has been a big factor behind its success.
“We base our technology, manufacturing and our R&D here in China because everything is much more accessible, making it quicker to develop products,” says Pan.
Based in China’s so-called “maker capital,” DJI can essentially design a part in the morning and then drive to a nearby factory to see it manufactured that afternoon.
Less restrictive regulations also makes it easier for DJI to get their drones in the air in China.
“It’s easier to go out and just test and fly here,” says Pan. “If you’re in the U.S., you have to get licensing to be able to do things commercially.”
That said, China recently announced a curb on exports of advanced drones, a move to tighten control over technologies that are key to national security.
DJI has insisted the export restrictions will not impact any of its core products, which are geared more for consumer use.
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New drone applications
But the line between consumer and commercial use is blurring as the global uptake in recreational drones drives new applications in a wide array of industries from logistics to the media.
Amazon is one of a number of companies that’s looking to use drones to deliver packages, and CNN has joined a trial program to help U.S. authorities for rules about how companies can use drones.
DJI’s American rival 3D Robotics touts a more “open platform” approach to drone technology. Its CEO believes that gives his firm a major advantage in emerging commercial markets.
“There are so many different applications that require expertise in the individual industry that it’s being used in,” says 3D Robotics CEO Chris Anderson.
“Specialists in areas like agriculture are looking for a drone with the ability to add their specialty to an open platform. That is what wins.”
But DJI is adapting. It recently released its hackable M100 drone – a flying platform for third-party software developers to add new functionality like thermal scanning.
As its eyes remain fixed on its largest market, the United States, the U.S. government has allowed a limited number of companies to test commercial applications for drones… including DJI.
But, according to one analyst, being a Chinese company could prove to be a problem.
“They will get blocked out a bit from getting involved in government projects,” says Colin Snow of Drone Analyst Research and Advisors. “NASA, for instance, is prohibited from doing any work directly with DJI as it has to work with its partners.”
“So, in the commercial world where we’ll see more and more aircraft being developed, the disadvantage is there for DJI.”
Today’s consumer drone can film spectacular vistas. But tomorrow, entire drone fleets could monitor crop growth, deliver medicines, and film disaster zones in real time.
The rise of consumer drones may have started in China with flying hobbyist cameras, but the “drone age” will soar ahead with or without DJI.
Read: How to rein in drone nightmares
CNN’s Ravi Hiranand contributed to this report