Nov 23, 2019 - Economy & Business

Searching for the next great American drone company

A Mavic 2 drone in front of a DJI logo

A DJI Mavic 2 drone. Photo: Michele Tantussi/Getty

Confusion around what will happen to Chinese drones, under fire from lawmakers and federal agencies, is causing a stir even before any new laws are passed.

Why it matters: No other company's offerings come close to DJI's cheap, powerful drones, experts say — potentially leaving government agencies, police and first responders in the lurch if DJI is shut out.

By the numbers: DJI’s U.S. market share is estimated between 70% and 80%.

  • "They make the best stuff," says Chris Anderson, founder of 3DR, a Berkeley drone company that was DJI's primary competitor until it shuttered its hardware shop in 2016. It now builds software that works with DJI drones.
  • "They're innovating the fastest, their prices are competitive — they're the giant."
  • In its July report, the Department of the Interior said it could not find a domestically produced drone that was competitive with DJI's offerings and prices.

Public safety agencies make up the lion's share of drone users, and a recent survey from DroneResponders, a nonprofit, found that 77% of respondents were flying DJI.

  • The proposed bills would not allow state and local agencies to use federal funding on Chinese-made drones.
  • "For public safety, drones have transitioned from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have," says Charles Werner, a former Charlottesville fire chief and director of DroneResponders. But uncertainty is preventing many from spinning up new drone programs.
  • "Right now the government isn't buying much of anything because it's not clear what the rules are," Anderson says.

"DJI casts an enormous shadow today," says Adam Bry, CEO of Skydio, a leading U.S. drone company. "Their aggressive dominance of the market isn't healthy in a lot of ways," he argues, citing an uphill battle for competitors and potential national security concerns.

  • "It doesn't give you choice, and it doesn't give you the normal pricing dynamics of the market," says Lorenz Meier, co-founder of Auterion, a Swiss drone software company.

To fill the vacuum that would result from a potential DJI exile, the government is encouraging homegrown dronemakers.

  • The Defense Department kicked off a "Trusted Capital Marketplace” program this month, aiming in part to subsidize domestic drone production.
  • And the bills are meant "not only to secure federal, state, and local operations from threats emanating from DJI products, but to encourage a robust American drone manufacturing sector to take its place," said Rep. Mike Gallagher (R–Wis.), who sponsored the House version, in a statement to Axios.
  • "I am confident that in the absence of DJI’s near-monopoly on the market, American innovators will step up to the challenge," Gallagher said.

Several experts pointed to California-based Skydio as the best possible competitor to DJI. Its latest product has autonomous capabilities that DJI lacks, but it's made with Chinese parts that would cause it to be banned under the proposed bills, Bry tells Axios.

  • And a consortium of companies working on open-source drone software has positioned itself as the Android to DJI's iOS — a team effort, led by Anderson, that aims to claw away market share from the reigning giant.
  • "It's simply impossible for any single company" to compete with DJI's wealth and army of engineers, says Auterion's Meier. He argues an open system lowers the cost of going up against the forerunner.

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