The city of Shenzhen, China is a powerhouse of drone engineering and manufacturing. We spoke with the President and CEO of leading commercial drone manufacturer MMC, Zhihui Lu, to find out what new developments are on the horizon and what he sees in store for the industry in 2017.
DRONELIFE’s Harry McNabb had the opportunity to visit MMC’s sleek new offices last year – but a lot has happened in the industry and the company since then. Since launching the world’s first commercial hydrogen fuel cell drone last April, the company’s pipeline has exploded with orders. They’ve already launched the second generation of the Hydrone, specialized for the military market. They’ve developed a complete hydrogen drone solution, including a generator, compressor, cylinder and fuel cell for other drones, including the DJI M600. But MMC isn’t sitting still – the industry is moving fast and they’re moving with it.
DL: The drone world has changed significantly in the last year. What do you see as the biggest changes in commercial drones?
President of MMC, Zhihui Lu: While the drone world has changed a lot, most of the market shift has been on the recreational side. The commercial market still hasn’t changed enough – especially in developing countries.
DL: MMC is a global company. In what parts of the world are you seeing the most growth in the usage of commercial drones and why do you think that it is occurring in that particular area?
Lu: From our experience, military, inspection and agriculture are the biggest growth areas for commercial drones. In the military market, we see a lot of growth in the middle east; for energy inspection work, China and the US are the largest growth areas. China, Korea, and Europe are the fastest growing markets for agriculture drones. That being said, the commercial drone market is still much smaller than the market for recreational drones.
DL: As a Chinese based commercial drone company, what have you learned as you expanded outside of China?
Lu: I was a co-founder of DJI and our CMO Lin Lu and I used to work for Huawei – our experience was in following western competitors and allowing them to educate overseas clients. However, in the commercial drone industry, we have to do this by ourselves: and it can be difficult to get clients to adopt new technologies in developing countries. We’ve had to set up an infrastructure of local branches and service centers, and we need to continually present and demonstrate our technology. It can be even harder to get clients in developed countries like the US to accept new technologies, because of the regulatory hurdles.
DL: Have you experienced any surprises?
Lu: The level of ROI in developing countries for applications like defense and security is really stunning. And for applications like power line stringing, the savings are incredible in cost, time and injuries.
In 2016, we provided over 1000 kilometers of high voltages towers power line stringing in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Nepal, Georgia, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Power line stringing looks simple, but the jobs in different environment are really complicated. To make drone technology available to clients in developing countries, we’ve had to develop a complete package for them, including flight planning, pilot training, and after service.
DL: Looking forward, what do you predict in the drone space in 2017?
Lu: The real commercial drone solution needs to be launched in 2017. So far, the so-called commercial solution is not enough – there’s not a big enough difference from the DJI consumer product. Hopefully MMC will be introducing this solution by the end of this year.
DL: DJI has dominated the recreational and prosumer space so far. While we know MMC is not in this space, do you think that anyone can catch them? Who should we look out for?
Lu: DJI is really strong now. Maybe some giant from outside of drone industry will be able to catch DJI – but I don’t think it will be Intel or Qualcomm.
DL: In the commercial space, we see a complex combination of manufacturers like MMC, point-to-point providers such as PrecisionHawk and Kespry, and military providers that are going downstream into the commercial space such as AeroVironment, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon. How do you think that this will play out in the next year or so?
Lu: PrecisionHawk and Kespry seem to be focusing on data and service now, and I don’t think they will continue hardware development. I think most of the US drone companies will use a model like Skycatch: a DJI drone + application. MMC will keep developing and manufacturing commercial drones, especially the hydrogen drone.
Hopefully AeroVironment, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon will go downstream in 2017. Military should be the first place to apply commercial multicoper drones. I tested the Lockheed Martin flight controller, and I have to say, right now it is too complicated for the commercial market. Multicopter drones just are not like traditional big fixed wing drones: if they don’t optimize, it will be hard to get it adopted as standard equipment in the army.
DL: What is the new technology coming out of China today? You have been leaders in getting hydrogen powered drones in the market, what do you see as the next level of technology coming out of China in the next year?
Lu: There are so many drone companies in China – including DJI, just 5 kilo meters away from us. More than 20,000 drone engineers work very hard everyday in Shenzhen. Anything could happen in 2017!
In the last few months, our R&D department has increased by 200 engineers. You will definitely see some new products from MMC, especially in hydrogen powered drones. I believe flight endurance will no longer be a bottleneck for commercial drones after 2017.
DL: What else do you want to tell us about?
Lu: We really want to focus on the greatest value drone applications right now, to allow our clients to get the value of new technology. In reality, drone technology is just not mature enough for many applications, like pesticide agriculture and some inspection applications. That’s why as a manufacturer, we’re focusing on power line stringing and other high value applications – we’ll wait on some of the other products and solutions.