How DJI continues to stay ahead of its rivals
Drone pioneer continues to dominate the industry
But we've been here before. Just two years ago, it looked like the Chinese company was facing its toughest test yet.
GoPro, the company that made small “action cameras” popular, was ready to launch the Karma drone. And American startup 3D Robotics had the Solo, which promised to be much smarter than the market leader at the time, DJI’s Phantom.
But while DJI went from strength to strength, its rivals stumbled out of the market: Both GoPro and 3D Robotics have now stopped building drones. The story of how we got there is an illustration of how DJI’s shrewd strategy has kept them far ahead of the competition.
BIRTH OF A GIANT
Unlike most personal drones on the market at that time, the Phantom didn’t need to be assembled from various parts -- it was ready to fly almost as soon as you took it out of the box. All you needed to do was add a GoPro camera to take pictures.
With DJI’s success, it was clear there was a growing demand for camera drones. Drones were DJI’s speciality, but not cameras. At first this meant attaching a separate GoPro camera to the drone, which worked, but wasn’t as user-friendly as having a camera built into the drone.
DJI eventually started building their own cameras for drones, bypassing the need to buy a GoPro. So the American camera company’s next move was obvious: They’d build a drone of their own.
But that was nothing compared to what happened next. Some units started suddenly falling from the sky after losing power in mid-air. Within weeks, it was clear that the Karma had a major defect. GoPro recalled hundreds of drones before relaunching the model three months later. But the damage was done, and it quit the drone business in January.
But they failed to master a fundamental feature that could make or break a camera drone: The gimbal. That’s the device that holds a drone’s camera stable while it’s flying around. Without a decent gimbal, video from a drone would be shaky and blurry. 3D Robotics had a hard time meeting production deadlines and made the decision to roll out the Solo without a gimbal, depriving it of a basic feature.
But DJI’s advantage isn’t purely down to the stumbles of its rivals.
CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
If there’s a threat to DJI, it may not come from the competition -- but from authorities.
Being a Chinese company gives DJI a production advantage, but it’s also caused plenty of other problems. Last year, the U.S. Army banned the use of DJI drones due to security concerns, while the Australian Defense Force bans its use in classified situations.
More broadly, the company is keeping its eye on tensions between the US and China and how that might affect its business. But the company’s managing director for North America told the South China Morning Post there’s only so much they can do.
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