Drone maker DJI monitoring potential backlash from rising US-China tensions

DJI is taking the proactive step of addressing user concerns about privacy and security by commissioning an independent review of its products.

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 January, 2018, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 January, 2018, 10:28pm

DJI, the world’s biggest maker of recreational drones, is bracing itself for a potential backlash against Chinese technology companies should US-Sino relations deteriorate after US lawmakers reportedly pressured an American telecoms company not to distribute smartphones made by China’s biggest maker.

Huawei Technologies had planned to announce a distribution partnership with AT&T at last week’s CES technology fair, but a last-minute pull-out by the American company meant the Chinese manufacturer had to go ahead with its launch without a carrier partner. It was a significant blow because more than 90 per cent of smartphones in the US are sold through bundled packages by telecom carriers.

“That is something we absolutely are keeping an eye on,” Michael Perry, managing director of DJI in North America, said in an interview in Las Vegas. “For us, we can only manage things that we can manage. DJI itself is not going to improve the relationship between China and the US, but what we can do is to continue communicating the reality of the situation in terms of what we do and what we don’t.”

DJI itself was mired in controversy after the US Army banned the use of its drones due to security concerns. The Shenzhen-based company introduced a mode that allows users to fly their devices without any data exchange with the internet and commissioned a review of its security practices, a preliminary report of which was released earlier this month.

In September, The Australian Defence Force resumed the use of DJI drones after a two-week suspension following the decision by its army, saying it was comfortable with resuming their use in unclassified situations.

Drone maker DJI introduces privacy mode after US Army ban

“We really try to hold concerned consumers on specific things, like what they are worried specifically. Then we can explain technically about what we do and what we don’t,” he said. “But if you say you are concerned in general, there’s not a lot we can respond to, because we can’t change where the company came from.”

The breakdown in talks between Huawei and AT&T follows a rejection by the US government of Ant Financial’s acquisition of US-based money transfer service MoneyGram International. The decision was criticised by China’s commerce ministry, which said it was concerned that protectionist voices were rising within the US.

Ant Financial is the financial services arm of Chinese internet conglomerate Alibaba Group, which owns the South China Morning Post.

US shoots down MoneyGram’s sale to China’s Ant Financial

DJI has engaged San Francisco-based Kivu Consulting to conduct an independent analysis of how its products collect, store and send different types of data, with preliminary conclusions confirming that DJI gives users control over data transmissions, according to the drone maker.

“If people do a fair evaluation of our technology, they will understand quickly,” said the managing director. “Even before the introduction of a local data model, our drones can operate and fly just fine without internet connection.”

Like many Chinese technology companies with ambitions to become global, DJI does not actively promote its Chinese roots. Its full name, spelt out, is Da Jiang Innovations, is inspired by the Chinese adage “Great ambition has no boundaries”.

“We just want our users to think about technology itself,” said Perry. “DJI creates a customer experience that it surprises people that we are a Chinese company.”

Founded by Frank Wang Tao, a mainland-born graduate of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, DJI has grown to become the world’s largest maker of civilian drones, with an estimated 70 per cent share of the market worldwide.

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​DJI is looking to add functions to its drones, including night flight and flying drones out of one’s line-of-sight​, said Perry. Regulatory discussions will continue to arise as technology improves and evolves, he said.

“We are happy to have technical discussion that focus on what we actually do,”he said. “But if you are talking about some crazy ideas about drone technology, what can you do?”