Evolution of the species: world’s largest drone producer DJI plots open platform as China eyes customised drones

PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 6:52pm
UPDATED : Friday, 31 July, 2015, 8:21pm

Chinese start-up DJI, the world’s largest manufacturer of civilian drones, is confident about the industry’s future despite a number of world cities like Washington D.C., Tokyo and Shanghai moving to ban the aerial devices.

The industry has “huge potential, especially when you have cluster technology to get the drones connected,” said Andy Pan, vice president of DJI, at a two-day conference in Hong Kong focused on tech start-ups.

In the future, the industry for drones for civilian and commercial use will extend beyond manufacturing to include services and solutions, he said. 

When that time comes, DJI, which raised US$75 million in venture capital funding in May, will create an open platform for users to share information and for developers to create customised drones based on the data supplied, he added.

DJI is valued at US$8 billion to US$10 billion, making it one of the world’s most valuable start-ups. It controls 70 per cent of the global market and is based in the southern city of Shenzhen, where most of the world’s drone makers are based.

READ MORE: Made in Shenzhen, funded in Hong Kong: Chinese drone start-ups told to look south

While drones are gaining popularity around the world and have potential applications in a range of fields, from surveillance to agriculture and the delivery of medical goods or, if Amazon has its way, books, there has also been a backlash. 

Regulators have stepped in to limit their use in many countries due to the risk of them interfering with emergency response services or airplane controls, among other risks.

In June, three planes filled with fire retardant had to turn back when they encountered recreational drones flying over the Lake Fire raging across California, which is dealing with an historic drought. 

One month later, fire-fighting helicopters were grounded for half an hour in the same state and by the same mechanical pests. None of the drone pilots were apprehended and 20 cars ended up being consumed by the blaze, the local forestry service said.

Stories like this prompted lawmakers in California recently to propose levying fines of US$1,000 to US$5,000 for pilots of drones caught flying over wildfires.

Drones were banned in the US capital in the wake of 9/11 and their use near airports in America and Britain has come under much scrutiny of late, even though it is normal to see exclusion areas around airports.

In England, they are banned from flying within 150 metres of any congested area or within 50m of buildings not owned by their operator, according to media reports.

“I compare them to cars. They are perfectly legal to own but it is very easy to break the laws when you are driving,” Chief Inspector Nick Aldworth of Britain’s Metropolitan Police service told British media in January. 

Meanwhile, Tokyo banned drones from its 81 public parks in May after one was discovered carrying radioactive material on the roof of the prime ministerial residence in April, according to the BBC.

Shanghai will launch regulations this year to ban drones without permits, which applicants will have to pass exams to obtain, Chinese media reported.

In contrast, Hong Kong’s relaxed regulatory climate makes the city a wild frontier for the radio-controlled aerial devices, experts say. The island's Civil Aviation Department does not require users to have any special license to fly drones weighing less than 7kg.

“We completely support the regulations,” another representative of DJI told the South China Morning Post, adding that he hopes these can be refined with an accent on safety as the industry finds its feet, or wings.

At the RISE Hong Kong conference, DJI was demonstrating two of the company’s 22 drone models, the Inspire 1 and Matrice 100. Demand for its best-selling Phantom reaches 30,000 units a month on average, Fortune reported.

Pan's staff were also showing off one of the company’s latest gadgets. Called Guidance, it can allegedly prevent the craft from running into objects mid-flight.

Pan said DJI is now in the second stage of development and is focusing on making products that are easier to use. The third stage will be pushing forward what he called “disruptive innovation”, such as  the aforementioned open platform.

Xiaomi, China’s top smartphone maker, has said it is also getting ready to produce clones, but no official plans have yet been revealed. 

Multiple industry sources confirmed to The Post in June that Xiaomi conducted its first test flight earlier this year.