In Season 8 of The Big Bang Theory, Raj had a new toy: A sleek, white, remote-controlled quadcopter. That appearance and another on South Park demonstrated how DJI’s Phantom was quickly becoming the symbol of a growing industry: Small consumer drones with cameras.
But this rapidly growing new sector, like the Phantom itself, wasn’t made or designed in the United States. Instead, it was a product of DJI, a Chinese startup that is now the world’s dominant maker of consumer drones.
ROAD TO SUCCESS
DJI was founded in 2006 by Frank Wang, a mainland-born student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A model plane enthusiast, Wang started the company with the clear goal of making a flying toy that wouldn’t crash half the time.
Instead of working out of a dorm room, Wang and two classmates rented a tiny office in Shenzhen just across the border. For several months, he skipped classes and poured all his energy into building his dream.
At first, the company focused on making drone parts such as autopilot systems and gimbals. But their sights were set on building a complete drone that was ready to fly right out of the box.
DJI’s first mass market hit, the Phantom, arrived in 2013. It sold for less than US$700 (minus the camera) but brought serious hardware, setting it far above the flimsy toy helicopters already on the market.
While competitors were playing catch-up, DJI kept improving the Phantom, increasing flight time from around 10 minutes for the original to 28 minutes, adding a built-in camera to the drone and a screen to the remote.
DJI also turned to other segments of the market, building expensive drones for professional users, while churning out smaller and smarter models for hobbyists. Following the success of the Phantom series, the company launched the foldable Mavic Pro in 2016 and the Spark in 2017. The latter is DJI’s smallest drone to date, approximately the size of a soda can.
With each success, DJI left its rivals further behind. Once relying on GoPro cameras to complement its drones, DJI now makes its own. On the other hand, GoPro’s attempt to sell its own quadcopters failed to make a dent, and the company was forced to pull out of the drone-making business.
Part of DJI’s strength lies in its location. Based in China’s manufacturing hub Shenzhen, DJI is close to its own factories, allowing it to design a part in the morning and build it for testing in the afternoon.
As more people begin buying its drones, DJI has faced pressure from governments to impose safety restrictions, preventing drones from flying in certain locations and limiting flight speed or height.
But there have been continuous sightings of DJI drones near airports worldwide from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles, as some users bypass built-in restrictions. It was also revealed in 2017 that a U.S. government office believes DJI is collecting sensitive data from its drones in the United States and relaying it back to China.