For China’s Shenzhen-based DJI Technology Co., business is better than good. The company—not even ten years old—owns roughly 70 percent of the nascent, but booming $2 billion consumer drone market, according to analysts.
It’s white, quadrotor aircraft—known by the brand name “Phantom”—are now pervasive within the public consciousness. Every time a user flies one over a crowd at a sporting event or crashes one on the White House lawn, the brand gets immeasurable free exposure. Last year, the company did $500 million in revenue, and is expected to top $1 billion this year.
In the world of consumer drones, DJI is industry leader, but Chris Anderson, CEO of Berkeley-based 3D Robotics, thinks his company can change all that. Last week, 3D Robotics (or 3DR) released its latest consumer drone offering, called Solo, in Best Buy stores across North America (it’s also available online). Thanks to Solo, 3DR thinks it has developed a product that will upset the industry status quo and eventually propel the company ahead of rival DJI in a market expected to be worth $4.5 billion by 2020.
“They’re already in a bit of a boxing match,” Frost and Sullivan Senior Industry Analyst Michael Blades says of the competition between the two companies, citing 3DR’s snapping up of some of DJI’s key U.S. talent. The personnel acquisitions follow a legal dispute between the Chinese company and its exclusive North American dealer last year. 3DR has made no secret of its intentions to become the leading global supplier of drone platforms by challenging DJI for its commanding market share. If successful, the company would tilt the commercial drone industry away from China and toward California, where a nascent, but growing drone industry has taken root in Silicon Valley.
Though the release of one product isn’t enough to create a seismic shift all on its own, Anderson isn’t coy about his confidence in the Solo platform or whether he thinks it marks an inflection point for 3DR and the drone industry at large. “This is the best consumer ‘copter ever made,” Anderson says of Solo. “And we think it’s probably the best commercial ‘copter ever made as well.”
The somewhat nebulous distinction between “consumer drones” and “commercial drones” is exactly what 3DR has taken aim at with Solo. Consumer drones are typically defined as those marketed at individual consumers for personal use at a price point low enough that one doesn’t need a corporate budget to buy and operate. Commercial drones make up a more sophisticated, more expensive category of aircraft aimed at businesses that want to use drones as part of a for-profit enterprise.