A Guide to Da-Jiang Innovations DJI Drones
Anybody with even vague knowledge of the commercial drone industry will come across a company named DJI. At first encounter, this outfit might seem like just another player in the exploding non-military drone industry. From entry level drones that get the basics done without any extra flair, to high-end aircraft capable of filming Hollywood-quality movies, DJI certainly showcases an impressive product mix.
If one spends some time researching the drone industry, one will quickly realize just how unique of a player DJI is. In the following paragraphs we will explain why this company is so different, including its history, product offering, and why in the world of drones at least, the name DJI comes up over and over again.
DJI designs and manufactures commercial and recreational grade drones, or if we are to be technical about it, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Their products are used in a variety of aerial photography and videographic applications as diverse as land surveying to sporting events. Annual sales are around 400,000 units and the company is estimated to command a whopping 70%2 of the commercial drone market worldwide. This along with tens of millions of dollars of joint venture seed funding to support 3,000 employees, DJI is by any measure the standard-setter in the civilian-drone industry. The Chinese entrepreneur behind it all is Frank Wong who founded the company in 2006 at the age of 28.
What makes DJI different is not that it is a Chinese company selling great products in the U.S. marketplace, or that it is a technology start-up, or that it is defining a new industry. There are plenty of Chinese-owned companies with leadership positions in the U.S. Two names that come to mind are Lenovo and Volvo cars. DJI is also not unique as a Chinese start-up. Shenzhen, located just next to Hong Kong is known as China’s Silicone Valley and it boats at least as many start-ups as San Jose, Austin, or Seattle. And of course there are dozens of companies that have redefined industries. Names that come readily to mind are Amazon, Facebook, and more recently Uber. So DJI is not unique in this area either.
What makes DJI unique is that it combines all three of these characteristics into one. The company’s products were developed entirely in China, with Chinese know-how, and using Chinese technology. One has to look no further than any drone retailers offering to see DJI’s prominence.
As far as a Chinese company’s impact on North America, it could easily be argued that the regulations the FAA continues to scramble to develop in order to keep up with the explosive growth of commercial drones is a direct result of the innovative products DJI continues to develop.
These three attributes: start-up, Chinese company in the U.S., and defining an industry, are impressive by any measure. To understand just what these efforts have yielded, let’s take a look the company’s product offering.
Surface to Air :: Drones
DJI’s products could be described as falling into two categories: aircraft and gimbal-mounted video cameras. In this sense the company is as much a designer of drones as it is of gimbals and cameras. Let’s take a look at the drone offering first. The company offers three drone models which are named Phantom, Inspire, and Spreading Wings.
The Phantom is DJI’s most popular product and if judged by availability in retail stores, it is by far the company’s highest seller. The models currently in production are labeled Phantom 3 and they are DJI’s third generation product. Interestingly, the older generation Phantom 2 models, which are no longer in production, are still shown on the company’s website. Presumably this is to afford potential customers the opportunity to research the product which as of this writing is still available for retail sale.
The Phantom 3 model is available in Standard, Advanced, and Professional configurations. The two most significant differences between the
Professional and the other two models is the camera type and controller functionality. The Professional has a 4K Camera, while the Advanced and Standard models come with a 2.4K camera. Also, the Professional’s controller has dedicated buttons for taking pictures and recording videos.
The most significant differences between the Advanced and the Standard units are that the former has more advanced GPS capabilities. The higher end unit logs flight information such as route, time, and distance. One very practical use of this data is troubleshooting in the event of a problem. The data can be sent to DJIs technical team for analysis in the event of a malfunction.
Regarding pricing, the Standard retails for about $800.00, the Advanced for $1,000.00 and the Professional is about $1,300.00.
At the somewhat higher end, although nothing about this company is low-end, is the Inspire 1. In addition to being bigger, more powerful, this model stands out from the Phantom series in three significant ways. First, the camera is upgradable and can be switched depending on shooting needs. Second, the camera operator and pilot is not the same person, thereby allowing the cameraman to focus on getting great video. Third, and perhaps most important is that the unit’s rotors are positioned higher up on the unit. This ensures that they do not interfere with the video recording while moving forward. On the Phantom 3 as well as other drones products, the rotors will often come into the frame while the unit is moving forward. This is the primary reason many GoPro videos are recorded while the drone flies backwards!
A final drone product offering by DJI is the Spreading Wings product. Ironically this unit, like all DJI drones, does not have any wings at all, but instead has rotary blades like a helicopter. In the case of Spreading Wings, we’re talking about a 900 series which as 6 rotors, and a 1000+ series which has 8 rotors. If this branding nomenclature sounds confusing to you, rest assured you are not alone. We don’t see why the 6-blased aircraft should not be a 600 series and an 8-blased aircraft an 800 series! In any case, the major difference between the two products is their carrying capacity. The 900 can carry up to 8.2 kg (18 lbs.) of camera weight, while the 1000+ can handle an 11 kg (24 lbs.) payload.
Regardless of the model purchased, the company offers technical support in North America out of their Los Angeles. An extensive online customer forum3 full of useful technical and troubleshooting information is also available 24/7.
Surface to Ground :: Gimbals
As mentioned earlier in this article, DJI is more than just a drone designer. The Chinese manufacturer also makes a variety of gimbals, a.k.a. hand-stabilizing cameras. Currently the company sells a hand-held OSMO model and a more advanced motion picture-grade Ronin model.
What makes both the OSMO and the Ronin unique is that they are incredibly well built and are superior to competitor offerings in just about every way. They both have excellent grip ergonomics and come with top-of-the line cameras. The Ronin has custom sensors, powerful stabilizing motors and according to the company has “advanced algorithms” built into its stabilizing technology. For its part, the OSMO comes with the same 4K camera as the Phantom 3 Professional. This model also allows for a cell phone’s screen to be used as a viewfinder. To be sure at $650, the big question is whether it is worth double or even triple the price of competing units. One thing is for sure though, “Made in
China” was never of such high quality as a DJI gimbal.
Drones and gimbals are not the end of the DJI product offering story. Many drone accessories are available for getting the most out of an aircraft. Probably the most useful of these are extra batteries. Since a single battery charge enables only about 20 minutes of flight time, purchasing extra batteries is a must for most any serious operator. One option is a 4-pack charging station.
Another useful accessory for the Phantom series at least is purchasing an extra controller. This will enable one person to pilot the device while the other operators the camera and gimbals (recall that the Inspire 1 comes with this pilot-videographer separation capability).
Other options include extra propellers, lens filters for the camera, and even battery warmers and insulators for flying in cold-temperatures (remember that a battery’s life performance is reduced the cooler the temperature).
The latest addition to DJI accessory world is the Zenmuse XT which is a thermal imaging camera launched in December 2015. This is a seriously cool product. Never has it been so easy to capture thermal images from the air. This writer certainly sees a huge opportunity for activities like search and rescue and motion picture production. Already there is plenty of YouTube footage showing thermal image scenes, often with the soundtrack from the Predator, which was a popular movie made back in the 80’s.
More to Surely Come
The bottom line is that DJI offers a wide range of products that are made in China, designed in China and venture capital funded in China. Exiting times are upon us!
All this is not to say that DJI is not without competitors. There are many companies worldwide that are not satisfied to split the leftover 30% market share among themselves. Other commercial drone leaders are Walkera, Blade Helis, and 3D Robotics, which was founded by ex-DJI employees. As with any new technology, the industry is probably going to see dozens of companies come and go before any clear leaders will emerge.
To find out more about any of these companies, visit their website’s to check out the latest specs and to watch videos of their drone offerings. Or of course just check back regularly here at Connex Drones where we are always providing the latest news and developments in the commercial Drone industry.
Forbes Magazine, 40 Under 40, 2015, online at http://fortune.com/40-under-40/frank-wang-22/
Forbes Magazine: Bow To Your Billionaire Drone Overlord, May 6, 2015, online at http://www.forbes.com/sites/ryanmac/2015/05/06/dji-drones-frank-wang-china-billionaire/
DJI Forum is at http://forum.dji.com