China’s pioneering drone maker DJI Innovations is getting attention today—not always in a favorable light.
I visited Chinese drone maker DJI, located in the southern city of Shenzhen. It’s best in class and the world market leader. But it’s also the target of security concerns by Washington, DC over its flying machines that could send surveillance data back to China. DJI has just announced that the company will expand its drone manufacturing by opening its first foreign assembly plant in the U.S.
DJI made news previously when an inexperienced pilot famously crashed one of its drones on the White House lawn. And it made more news when the US Army restricted soldiers from using drones made by China’s DJI, based on claims that the Chinese drone maker was collecting data from its unmanned flying machines in the United States and relaying that information back to China. DJI denied those claims and alleviated some issues by issuing a software update that prevents its drones from flying within a 15.5‑mile radius of downtown Washington and introducing a privacy mode on its drones to prevent transmissions.
But the US military ban remains. It’s not just a security issue but an economic one. Beijing aspires to become the world leader in several technologies, including robots and drones, as part of the country’s “Made in China 2025” strategy to reduce its dependence on imports, develop elite talent, and improve the country’s production systems. China has made swift progress in developing a thriving robotics and drones industry as an upgrade of its manufacturing and military sectors.
China’s tech grab could jeopardize many US technological advantages, a research report prepared for the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission concludes. The report recommends the US government promote advanced manufacturing and robotics technologies, monitor China’s advances, review bilateral investments and cooperation, and consider closer vetting of academic and research exchanges.
Flying high, DJI has soared to take two-thirds of the drone market globally. Still privately held, DJI has rapidly grown into a drone master with a global workforce and 11,000 employees. No drone company in the West comes close to DJI dominance.
DJI is one of the world’s leading unicorn-funded startups. It’s backed by Sequoia Capital China and Accel Partners, both with Silicon Valley roots.
At my visit of DJI at the sprawling Viseen Software Tech Park, while doing research for my new book, Tech Titans of China, I got a demo of its heavy-duty and lightweight drones flying high above the surrounding corporate buildings. These drones whirl by like giant bumblebees but are actually hardworking aerial robots that can do surveillance and inspections for utilities, construction sites, airplanes, and trains from onboard cameras. Of course, some drones are also used for hobbies and fun, popular for capturing that perfect image of a wedding.
Soon, DJI will be moving to a new headquarters that reflects the ambitions of its founder, Frank Wang, a press-shy product genius who was inspired by Steve Jobs’ dictum: design the product first and see how the market responds. DJI’s new flashy home in Shenzhen is a futuristic twin skyscraper designed by Foster & Partners, the same architect as for Apple’s orbit-like base in Cupertino. This is in keeping with the firm’s positioning as the Apple of drone. DJI’s new building features cantilevered floors, a sky bridge where drones will be tested, and even a robot-fighting ring.
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