• IDRA

How DJI went from university dorm project to world’s biggest drone company

- Celie Chen | SCMP


- The Shenzhen-based company generated sales of US$2.7 billion in 2017, an 80 per cent jump from the year before

- Wang grew up in Hangzhou, the home base of China’s biggest e-commerce player Alibaba

In a modern, spacious showroom in Shenzhen, a dozen visitors spend a Wednesday afternoon checking out the sleek-looking products from the world’s biggest drone maker.


The showroom, located in the Weixin Software Science & Technology Park, stands in contrast to the drab, blue-grey high-rise buildings around it, typical of Chinese science parks built in the early 2000s.


That will soon change though. SZ DJI Technology, whose products are sold in more than 100 countries, has commissioned world-renowned British architectural studio Foster and Partners to design a new headquarters.


This main office will not be ready for another four years, but it is fitting that the Chinese company known as the Apple of the drone industry is using the same outfit responsible for designing Apple Park, the US technology giant’s new corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Founded in 2006, DJI has grown from a cramped room in a university dorm to a global enterprise with 14,000 employees and 17 offices internationally. It controls more than 70 per cent of the global commercial and consumer drone market and generated sales of 18 billion yuan (US$2.7 billion) in 2017, an 80 per cent jump from the year before.


Frank Wang Tao, the man behind DJI’s growth from university dorm to global giant, seldom speaks in public or gives media interviews. DJI said he was not available to be interviewed for this article.


“Frank was passionate about helicopters when he was a child … He is very private and prefers the spotlight [to be on the products],” said DJI spokeswoman Natasha Gray.


Born in 1980, Wang grew up in Hangzhou, the home base of China’s biggest e-commerce company Alibaba Group Holding, and has been passionate about aircraft since childhood. New York-listed Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.


“I felt very lucky reading a helicopter-themed cartoon when I was a child and have been obsessed with sky exploration ever since,” Wang said in rare public remarks given at Shenzhen University in 2015.


“My parents gave me a hobby helicopter as a reward for good marks in a high school exam but I was very disappointed when it crashed due to limited stability during flight,” he said. “Later, I gradually got a better idea of what a perfect aircraft was and made the decision to build one.”

Wang did not achieve top marks in school, which he partly blames on spending too much time reading about his passion for aircraft, and was subsequently rejected by his top choices of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University. Instead, he was accepted in 2003 by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology to study electronics engineering.


In 2005, Wang built a helicopter flight-control system for his graduation thesis, but it failed the night before the class presentation, according to an account in the Chinese-language book DJI Drone. Wang’s efforts, however, eventually paid off and he built flight controllers out of his dorm room until 2006, when he moved to Shenzhen with two classmates to establish DJI, with encouragement from his university professor Li Zexiang.


Chinese drone maker DJI says study shows it does not spy on users


“In the very beginning, we had different competitors but they were small,” said Wang in a 2015 interview with Chinese-language news site of Guangzhou-based NetEase. “We made a lot of the right decisions to stand out in the industry … I think it is DJI’s success that made the drone industry attractive to investors and users.”


Chris Anderson, the chief executive of DJI’s major rival 3D Robotics, was quoted by US media as saying that the Chinese company has been “executing flawlessly” and “we just got beaten fair and square”.


“I do not see any strong competitor for DJI so far,” said Cao Zhongxiong, executive director of new technology studies at Shenzhen-based think tank China Development Institute. “The company can dominate the drone industry for some years to come.”


Wang partially attributes his success to simply being smarter than others and maintaining “a distance from the masses”, he told Forbes in a 2015 interview. “If you can create that distance, you will be successful.”

While Wang likes to keep a distance from the masses, his products – especially the flagship Phantom quadcopter drone that sells for under US$700 – have been aimed squarely at them.


DJI is now looking further afield to the enterprise market after securing almost three-quarters of the consumer-drone market share. Its US$1,999 Mavic 2 is aimed at the industrial segment, which accounts for more than half of the global US$9 billion drone market.


“We found success on the consumer side and are now leveraging the things we do very well into other industries. We are also expanding to serve different companies, operations and industries globally,” said Bill Chen, DJI’s enterprise partnership manager. He said the use of drones in agriculture will be a particular focus for the company.


China's DJI casts eye on industry users like agriculture after conquering consumer drone market


That move does not mean the company will neglect the consumer market. DJI is “still looking for ways to make drones more accessible, whether by increasing the battery life or decreasing the drone size”, Chen said.


DJI has rolled out a development kit so software developers can write applications for specific tasks, signalling the company’s shift from a hardware manufacturer to platform operator. “We aim to build a versatile platform that can be addressed by third-party developers as well,” Chen said.


That includes working with competitors. In 2017, Wang struck a deal to integrate drone software from 3D Robotics into DJI drones for customers in the construction industry.


As a platform company, however, the issue of data privacy will become front and centre, especially given that security concerns are stoking current US-China trade tensions.

DJI commissioned an independent study last year to verify that its users have control over how their data is collected, stored and transmitted. The move came after the company was mired in controversy last year, when the US Army banned the use of its drones over security issues.


Chen declined to elaborate on the impact of ongoing US-China trade tensions, other than to say: “The US is our key market and we will keep monitoring the situation.”


He believes that DJI’s alliances with US customers will help if the trade war escalates. “Our partnerships with these top industry players are important … They will come out and say ‘DJI has products and solutions for us’,” Chen said.


Drone maker DJI monitoring potential backlash from rising US-China tensions


Meanwhile, the company will continue to “focus on improving its products, service and technology”, he said, adding that the company can achieve fast turnaround because it does everything in-house.


“If anything comes up, you can change it from design to sample product within one day,” Chen said. For now, that means communicating with different departments scattered around Shenzhen’s technology parks. The new DJI headquarters that is set to open in 2022 will put all its staff, literally, under one roof. By then, the world should know if DJI’s move into the industrial market has been as successful as its clean sweep in the consumer segment.


Original article at SCMP, here.


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