The following is a guest post by Ali Crane of Dr. Drone, Canada’s first DJI Store.
Similar to the evolution of the Smartphone, personal computer, and internet, drones have quickly grown from a DIY hobby to a mainstream technology used all over the world. Fast-paced innovation has made today’s drones smaller, safer, and more affordable than ever, while flight features and camera quality have continued to improve at rapid speed.
The company who has risen to lead the pack of this billion-dollar industry is DJI, a drone manufacturer based in Shenzhen, China. DJI currently controls approximately 72% of the global drone market, according to a 2017 study by Skylogic Research, and has become infamous for their dedication to innovation and powerhouse production, consistently releasing a steady stream of industry-leading drones while their competition struggles to keep up pace.
The Inception of DJI
The drone empire known today as DJI began in the university dorm room in 2006 of founder Frank Wang, who had a lifelong fascination with UAV systems. Deciding to pursue his passion after graduating from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Wang moved his start-up to the manufacturing metropolis of Shenzhen, China, funding the venture with his remaining university scholarship money. The move to Shenzhen would later prove to be a key to the company’s future success.
Early on DJI began selling DIY drones and controllers. It wasn’t until 2013 that DJI would release their very first consumer drone, the DJI Phantom 1. With their unwavering commitment to innovation, DJI focused on combining both design and technology to create advanced, high-quality, and user-friendly products. From the Phantom 1 to their most recent release, the Mavic Air, DJI has showcased just how far drone tech has come in such a short amount of time.
Investment in R&D
With heavy investment in research and development, dedication to quality, and the advantage of being located in the manufacturing capital of Shenzhen, DJI was able to create key software and hardware components in the early stages of the drone industry that would enable them to single-handedly push UAV technology forward faster and better than any of their competitors.
One of DJI’s earliest accomplishments was their advanced GPS systems. Before GPS technology was ever integrated into drones, pilots had no way of determining the orientation or position of their drone in the air. This problem greatly held back the overall user experience and left out a major portion of potential users. With the integration of GPS modules and a built-in compass, drones could finally hover in position, giving operators total control over their drone and making the technology safer and easier to fly.
Another one of DJI’s major breakthroughs was the creation of their Lightbridge transmission system. Before Lightbridge technology, users had no way of viewing footage being recorded at long distances by their drone’s camera, which hindered more widespread usage in both the recreational and commercial sectors, especially in the world of aerial photography and videography. With the invention of Lightbridge, drone pilots could view live footage shot by their drone in HD quality straight from their Smartphone, enabling users to observe and perfect their aerial photos and videos for the very first time.
DJI’s self-diagnosing software was another major step forward for the industry. In the early days of drone tech, drone enthusiasts had to rely on the memorization of blinking and flashing coloured lights to diagnose any problems or defects with their drone. With DJI’s innovative self-diagnosing software, users could easily view and automatically test every component of their drone without needing to depend on the memorization of lights. With the ability to determine the health of a drone quickly and easily, DJI drones became the go-to choice for a reliable, safe, and easy-to-use flight experience.
Non-Stop Innovation – The DJI Phantom Series
With their now iconic Phantom series, DJI showcased their dedication and commitment to fast-paced innovation in the drone industry. From the Phantom 1 to the Phantom 4 Pro, DJI was devoted to consistently improving each new drone they released, inventing key technologies and constantly upgrading specs including range, flight time, and camera quality, to ensure that their drones would always stay two steps ahead of their competition.
The Phantom 1 released in 2013 was DJI’s first ready-to-fly drone platform that included an internal GPS system. This was revolutionary because previous to this innovation, users had no way of maintaining their aircraft’s position in the air which made drones extremely difficult to control and maneuver. An internal GPS system meant that users could for the first-time pilot their drone with more accuracy, as the aircraft could actively keep its position and hover in place even if the user let go of the remote. The integration of an internal GPS ultimately made DJI’s drones safer and more reliable in flight than any other drone available at the time and enabled pilots to fly with more control over their aircraft than ever before.
With the Phantom 2 series, DJI continued to innovate and push UAV technology forward. First, DJI extended the range and battery life of their newest releases so that users could stay in the air longer and fly farther. This was significant because operators no longer needed to land their drones as often, which previously greatly held back the overall flight experience. The Phantom 2 Vision and Vision+ also came with an optional Lightbridge 1 add-on for an even longer range and a stable HD video downlink of up to 1 km, a feat that was unheard of at that time. This was significant because drone pilots could observe and perfect their aerial photos and videos in HD quality from their Smartphone, which unleashed the full creative potential of drone technology.
The Phantom 2 Vision+ additionally came equipped with the first stabilized 3-Axis gimbal system featured on a drone. With earlier drone model’s users had to either buy and install their own camera and gimbal system or fly with a camera that could only tilt up and down with footage still vulnerable to shakiness. The Vision+’s advanced 3-Axis gimbal system ensured that footage was smooth and stable in the air and gave pilots more freedom to shoot dynamic and creative shots.
DJI continued to reach all new milestones with the release of their Phantom 3 series, a series that would catapult the company to mainstream success. First, the Phantom 3 series featured a built-in Lightbridge system and all-new bottom-facing vision positioning system for added stability and precision in the air. Another significant improvement featured in the series was the integration of GLONASS in addition to their internal GPS systems. GLONASS, the Russian version of GPS, enabled the drones to connect to more satellites for enhanced stabilization and position accuracy.
The ground-breaking DJI Go App was additionally introduced with the Phantom 3 Series. Through the DJI Go App drone pilots could easily access their drone’s camera settings and flight controls and be automatically alerted if any problems with the aircraft were detected. The App featured a streamlined, user-friendly interface, and would ultimately make drone technology more understandable and easier to use for a wider audience.
The revolutionary Phantom 4 series continued to showcase DJI’s ability to constantly and consistently push their drones to new heights. First, the Phantom 4 series came equipped with a completely redesigned gimbal. The new gimbal supported the drone’s camera on both sides instead of one and was made with an upgraded magnesium alloy material for added stability and strength. This meant that pilots no longer had to worry about their drone capturing shaky or unsteady shots. Footage was virtually guaranteed to look smooth, cinematic, and vibration-free for more professional looking results.
The Phantom 4 series also came equipped with dual IMU’s and a dual-compass set-up for added redundancy in flight and a faster reaction time, as well as a first-of-its-kind obstacle avoidance system wherein the drone would intelligently stop or move around objects detected in its path. DJI’s advanced obstacle avoidance system made their drones safer and most reliable in the air so that pilots could fly with confidence and have more dependable, crash-free flights. It also led the way to more Intelligent Flight Modes that made use of the obstacle avoidance system, including modes such as ActiveTrack and Tap to Fly.
Throughout the timeline of the Phantom series, DJI displayed their ingenuity and aggressive approach to advancing UAV technology. Each drone series they released featured new vital technologies that made their drones better and safer than any of their competitors, and with every innovative product, DJI continued to significantly improve range, camera, quality, battery life, and flight performance without ever slowing down. From the Phantom 1 with a flight time of ten minutes, range of about 300 metres, and no camera, to the Phantom 4 Pro with a 7 km range, 30 minutes of flight time, and a 4K 20-megapixel camera, DJI truly proved that they were able to progress drone tech to heights no other company could reach or keep up with.
Smaller, Foldable Drones
With the monumental success of the Phantom series at their back, DJI released their first ever compact and foldable drone named the DJI Mavic Pro in September 2016. Upon its release the Mavic Pro proved that UAV technology had reached its stage in advancement wherein the tech was getting smaller and smaller, and more accessible to the masses. Unlike their Phantom drones, the Mavic Pro was designed to be as portable and compact as possible. Folded down the Mavic Pro was about the size of a water bottle, a size that had never previously been seen on the market for a drone so powerful. Once released, the Mavic Pro became the world’s most popular consumer drone, showcasing DJI’s success in creating a drone that combined their advanced technologies, with sleek design, and user-friendly features.
Next, in the evolution of DJI, the company released their smallest drone ever, the DJI Spark. The Spark weighed only 300 grams and was also DJI’s most affordable drone to date. Marketed towards casual drone enthusiasts and beginners, the Spark featured easy-to-use controls and a new advanced flight mode named Gesture, wherein users could control the piloting of their drone with simple hand motions. With the Spark, DJI once again showcased the innovations they had made in managing to integrate advanced technology into a small and compact size.
DJI’s latest release to market, the Mavic Air, was designed to be powerful, portable, and accessible to drone enthusiasts of all levels and ages to ultimately create the best consumer drone on the market. At the point of its release, DJI had become the leader of the drone industry, with their competition failing to keep up pace and DJI competing virtually against themselves. With the Mavic Air DJI again displayed their dedication to continuous advancement, making the drone even smaller than its predecessors, and packing in more advanced features including a 3-Axis 4K 12-megapixel camera capable of shooting 4K at 100 mbps, a front, back, and bottom facing obstacle avoidance system, 8GB of internal storage, and even more intelligent flight features. With the release of the Mavic Air, DJI successfully launched the most sought-after consumer drone in the global UAV market and further solidified their place as the most dominant force in the drone industry.
DJI’s Commercial expansion
Throughout their success in the consumer drone industry, DJI continued to expand their reach into the commercial sector, recognizing the huge growth potential in the Enterprise market. While dominating the area of consumer drones, DJI persisted in developing their commercial drone lineups including their Inspire series and their Matrice series. The Inspire series was designed to cater towards professional usage in the film and television industry, while the Matrice series was geared toward commercial and industrial inspections across a variety of sectors.
What made DJI’s commercial drones so appealing and innovative was their strategy to take key base technologies created for their consumer drones and integrate them into their commercial drones. With this approach, DJI was able to keep their commercial drones user-friendly, while still able to execute demanding enterprise tasks. From performing aerial inspections and surveys on roads, buildings, and bridges, to conducting life-saving rescue missions, DJI pushed forward the potential of what drone technology was capable of achieving to improve and transform the way industries around the world conducted their operations. With heavy investment in research and development and commitment to innovation, DJI was able to expand the way the world viewed drone technology from solely being seen as just an aerial photography tool. With the rising awareness of what drones were now capable of, DJI saw rising usage of their drones in a variety of sectors including public safety, infrastructure, energy, and construction, expanding their domination over both the commercial and consumer UAV markets.
Diversification – Cameras and Gimbals
Branching out from drone tech into other areas of the technology industry has also proven to be a key component of DJI’s supremacy. Throughout the years DJI has released drones specifically designed to meet the needs of everyone from professionals to consumers, while their competitors struggle to release just one drone to the market. In recent years DJI increased their focus on the expansion of their own brand of camera and gimbal systems including the Osmo Series, the Ronin series, and their Zenmuse camera series. In 2017, DJI even acquired a majority stake in the iconic camera company Hasselblad, indicating a growing focus on expanding their reach into a variety of technologies, not just including drones. With the savvy cross-promotion of their drones, cameras, and gimbals, DJI was able to spread their wings over the entire tech market and be recognized as more than just a drone manufacturer, creating an entire DJI ecosystem similar to Apple’s.
From Start-up to Empire
From the Phantom 1 to the Mavic Air in such a short timeframe, DJI proved that with an unwavering dedication to innovation, drone technology could reach heights that once seemed lightyears away. From their consumer drones to the professionally-minded Matrice 200 series DJI successfully branched out from the consumer to the commercial market, while showcasing their dominance over both sectors. Looking back from the Phantom 1, DJI consistently invested in the advancement of their technology, without ever settling for average. With that mentality, the world has seen their products get progressively smaller, safer, more user-friendly, and more affordable.
The Global Market revenue for drones has been forecast to grow into approximately a $11.2 billion industry by 2020, according to research firm Gartner. With huge growth potential, thousands of companies big and small have tried and struggled to compete with DJI, while others have most recently pivoted their focus towards software and services.
Looking into the future DJI is showing no signs of slowing down, and the company is poised to continue to conquer the market while pushing UAV technology forward. In the time to come, it is predicted that DJI will continue to expand into the realm of professional camera gear and further expand their dominance in both the commercial and consumer markets. Comparing drones to other technologies, it seems that we are witnessing the evolution of drone technology as it continues to reach all new heights.
Guest Post by Ali Crane, Content Creation Specialist for Dr Drone, Canada’s first official DJI Store specializing in drone retail, repair and customization.