DRONE MAKER HURT BY US-CHINA RIFT, OPENING DOOR TO US RIVALS
AppleMagazine|AppleMagazine #464
Skateboarders, surfers and mountain bikers used to be the target customers for California startup Skydio, a maker of high-end drones that can home in on people and capture their movements on video all by themselves. Now police officers, firefighters and soldiers are interested in the self-flying machines.

That’s partly because U.S. national security concerns about the world’s dominant consumer drone-maker, China-based DJI, have upended the market for small drones and opened the door to lesser-known companies pitching applications for government agencies and big businesses.

Companies like Skydio are also tapping into a technological revolution that could do away with the need for human pilots to put drones through each one of their paces. Instead, advanced artificial intelligence is starting to power drones that can follow humans and other targets on their own. Robotics experts say Skydio’s cutting-edge AI makes its drones appealing as reconnaissance tools, as does its made-in-America vibe.

“There’s a lot of anti-China rhetoric,” said Vijay Kumar, a drone entrepreneur and the dean of engineering at the University of Pennsylvania.

Years before President Donald Trump cited spying concerns in pushing to ban popular Chinese-owned apps TikTok and WeChat and ratcheting up sanctions against Chinese telecom giant Huawei, Shenzhen-based DJI was already under close watch as a potential national security threat.

A document from U.S. customs authorities alleged in 2017 that DJI drones likely provided China with access to U.S. critical infrastructure and law enforcement data. DJI denied the allegation. As political concerns grew, its rivals have increasingly seized on the opportunity to pile on the anti-DJI sentiment.

“Do you trust DJI drones?” said promotional material teasing the launch of a new product this summer from French drone-maker Parrot. “Don’t trust Chinese drones,” said another Parrot promotion.

“They’re the dominant incumbent and we’re the scrappy American underdog,” Skydio CEO Adam Bry said in an interview. “There’s a real opportunity for U.S. companies to lead the way.”

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