THE AIRBORNE SUPREMACY
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 30 - April 06, 2020
CHINA’S DJI OWNS THE MARKET FOR CONSUMER DRONES. NOW IT’S RECKONING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES
BLAKE SCHMIDT AND ASHLEE VANCE

Every summer, DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, puts on a competition in Shenzhen called RoboMaster. If amateur robotics warfare isn’t your hobby of choice, you should know that at the event hundreds of university students from China, Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere build robotic vehicles the size of lawn mowers, arm them with plastic bullets, and pit the machines against one another in front of thousands of screaming fans.

The competition was Frank Wang’s idea. For several years, the founder and chief executive officer of DJI (full name: SZ DJI Technology Co.) has attempted to turn RoboMaster into something like a cult that celebrates engineering—and, not incidentally, stokes demand for his company’s products. Along with the event, there’s a TV cartoon, a reality show, a documentary, and a comic book series. Starting last year, DJI began selling a smaller version of a battlebot to consumers as a DIY kit called the RoboMaster S1.

Current and former employees describe Wang, who started DJI in 2006 while still in college, as intensely private and obsessed with engineering

In public, Wang doesn’t preach the RoboMaster gospel himself. He’s perhaps the most private tech CEO of them all, shunning all but a handful of media requests over his 14 years as DJI’s boss and figurehead. He stood up a planned interview for this story twice, leaving his representatives to apologize and explain that they just never quite know what the man will do. In fact, the rumor going around DJI’s press office is that Wang might not speak to a reporter ever again.

Reclusiveness is a bit off-brand for the world’s first drone billionaire. DJI has filled the skies with cheap, easy-to-use flying machines that produce vivid video records of the world below. It has improved these products at such a relentless pace that rivals don’t so much compete with DJI as cower before it. Photographers, filmmakers, and gadget wonks adore DJI and obsess over its every invention. Other Chinese tech companies are still sometimes dismissed as lame copycats, but DJI has proved that China’s startup scene can create an original global brand with a steady supply of die-hard fans.

And yet the company’s future suddenly seems uncertain. Talk of an initial public offering, which never came to pass, has been replaced by headlines documenting an internal fraud scandal that cost DJI $150 million. The trade war between China and the U.S. hasn’t helped, nor has the outbreak of novel coronavirus Covid-19, which shut down the Chinese economy in January and is now threatening the company’s biggest market, the U.S.

Some of these problems stem from DJI’s total dominance of the drone business. American anxieties about China’s influence, especially anything involving computers, extend naturally to the steady supply of robots buzzing overhead. And within the industry itself, the company’s tireless drive to improve its products and lower prices has sucked so much of the profit out of the market for consumer and corporate drones that even Wang has little choice but to fund expansions into cameras, robotics, and, most controversially, drones sometimes used for surveillance by big companies and government bodies. As one former employee puts it, “Frank has created a race to the bottom, and now he’s competing against himself.”

Wang was still a college student in Hong Kong when he started DJI in 2006, building components for remote-controlled helicopter prototypes. He and a classmate studied under the guidance of Li Zexiang, a renowned Chinese researcher who helped them develop a tracking system for the devices. In 2009 the technology proved good enough to fly an unmanned chopper around Mount Everest. It coped well with the blustery, high-altitude conditions at hand.

Following this early success, Wang began hiring young engineers to develop the motors, speed controllers, bodies, and radio modules for what we now think of as drones. Early drone enthusiasts had been accustomed to soldering their own components, spending hours on forums to figure out how to get things to work, and installing and reinstalling clunky software. DJI managed to eliminate all of this hassle and deliver a product that worked out of the box.

In 2015, DJI upended the drone market with the release of the Phantom 3. By then, Wang had tapped into Shenzhen’s manufacturing expertise to build factories that could produce most of a drone’s key components. The Phantom 3 added a built-in camera that could swivel and transmit video to a screen held by an operator. “That was a watershed moment,” says Ryan Tong, a former managing director at DJI. “They made it so easy. As a photographer and as a Chinese American, I was very proud.”

“IT USED TO BE MORE PEOPLE THAN ROBOTS ON THE LINE, THEN IT BECAME MORE ROBOTS THAN PEOPLE”

The Phantom 3’s popularity and DJI’s ceaseless push to release successor devices—the Phantom 3 SE, the Phantom 4, the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0—drove out many of the company’s competitors, especially its U.S. rivals. 3D Robotics Inc. in Berkeley, Calif., was also early to the hobbyist drone market. It’s raised $170 million over the better part of a decade, but eventually shifted away from making its own drones to focus on producing software that can run on DJI’s models instead. GoPro Inc., the wearable camera maker, thought it could expand into drones, but got out of the business in 2018. (Last year, DJI rubbed it in, releasing a GoPro-like camera called the Osmo Action.) According to Drone Industry Insights UG, DJI now accounts for about 77% of drone sales in the U.S. No other rival has more than 4% of the market.

Some executives might use such dominance as a reason to brag. Not Wang. The CEO, who has a thin build and likes to wear a newsboy cap and distinctive round glasses, hasn’t sat for an interview since 2016. Those close to him, including more than two dozen current and former employees who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their job prospects in the drone industry, describe him as an engineering and design obsessive with little interest in anything else. They say that his office is filled with objects he admires—a motorcycle, a model plane, a massive coffee table that looks like petrified wood— and that his favorite movie is Real Steel, the 2011 Hugh Jackman film about fighting robots. One former employee says Wang “dreams of the day robots can do everything.”

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