The Chinese drones are coming!
While there are many players in the game, here three top Chinese drone manufacturers to know about today.
Shenzhen-based DJI (Dà-Jiāng Innovations) is the leader of the pack. Their slogan is “The Future of Possible,” and their corporate videos indeed evoke a probable future:
According to some counts, DJI dominates 85% of the world’s civilian drone market. Their consumer products range from the user-friendly Mavic and Spark series to the more advanced Phantom series. While their main value for most consumers is for their applications in aerial image-capture (they also make a handheld product series called Osmo for smartphone auteurs), their expansion in the US was briefly slowed by security concerns.
In August, the US Army — an institutional DJI client — published a memo outlining cybersecurity concerns involved with data shared between drone and pilot over the internet. DJI promptly responded by announcing a “Local Data Mode” that allows users to selectively turn off data sharing.
This potential hiccup aside, DJI’s expansion across the Pacific has continued apace. They opened a flagship retail store in San Francisco’s Financial District this past February, and in August announced a partnership with Berkeley company 3D Robotics, America’s top drone maker and DJI’s chief competitor. Quartz reports:
Much as Apple helped invent and dominate the high-end smartphone market, DJI has been an innovator and now has become the market leader in top-of-the-line drones. Through a massive research and production operation in Shenzhen, DJI has managed to release new products at such a fast rate that it’s kept most other companies fighting a price war in a race to the bottom. In the last year, DJI has released three new consumer drones, each of which has been considered the best that you can buy at their respective price points. In the same time, GoPro, the action-camera company, delayed, recalled, and re-released its first drone, that was costlier and had fewer features than DJI’s two most-recent drones.
TLDR: DJI is basically the Apple of drones.
One rung lower is ZeroTech, founded in Beijing in 2007. ZeroTech’s flagship product is Dobby, a cute little pocket-sized selfie drone:
Not much to add to that, really. Dobby does that one thing very well. Points for the terrifying sound design in this video. Though selfies are undoubtedly a global phenomenon, they’re hitting an especially strong inflection point in China today, becoming the dominant symbol of youth and technology in advertising and film. We predict that selfie drones like Dobby, or the AI-enabled Hover Camera by Beijing’s Zero Zero Robotics, are something we’re going to see more and more of as we creep further forward along this consumer-tech vector we’re currently riding.
TLDR: ZeroTech makes pocket-sized selfie drones at mass consumer scale.
Third on our list is Beijing’s Ehang, a relative newcomer who completed their first flight in 2014. Ehang’s mass market offering is the Ghostdrone quadri-copter, which comes with a VR headset and can be purchased for a cool $899.99 at a Best Buy near you. But Ehang’s real claim to fame is their Ehang 184, which last January became the world’s first drone capable of carrying a human passenger:
If you don’t bother clicking on that video, here’s the spoiler: the idea for the Ehang 184 came after the best friend of Ehang CEO Huazhi died from a flight accident in 2011. Huazhi soon after lost his helicopter coach to a flight malfunction. These two events sparked Huazhi to create a flying vehicle based on “absolute safety by design.”
Looks like the first commercial testing ground for the Ehang 184 will be in Dubai, of all places, though it’s already behind schedule, according to CNBC:
Mattar al-Tayer, the head of [Dubai’s Road and Transportation Authority], told a conference in February that the Chinese-made EHang 184, a Volocopter competitor, would be regularly flying through the city’s skies by July, though that deadline came and went. The RTA did not respond to a request for comment.
One last thing: Ehang is also developing drone swarms — tiny drones that fly around in sync, dubbed by the company “a new flyable media.” I’ll leave you to decide where this Guinness-record-setting drone swarm, set off in celebration of this year’s Spring Festival, falls on your own personal delight/terror spectrum:
TLDR: DRONE TAXIS.
Cover photo: DJI Phantom 4 (via YouTube)