The Rise and Controversies of DJI: From Consumer Drones to Military Applications and Beyond

Drones of different varieties have been used during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A 500 dollar product is able to drop little bombs into car windows. And that’s something where you just haven’t really seen with other technology.

World’s biggest drone provider, DJI, is one of many companies that has found their products used on the battlefield.

The unfortunate thing is it’s a very reliable product. So it, like it’s, it’s become a productive choice even for those who wanna use a drone inappropriately.

Do you know that this drone is used in military circumstances?

Because it’s actually very rugged and very precise.

How fast can it go? On paper is 72 k. M. Per hour. What is it about DJI drones that make people go crazy?

It’s very easy to use. I don’t have to worry about having to know the manual.

The global drone market is expected to grow from $30.6 billion in 2022 to 55.8 billion by 2030. And more than 70% of that is dominated by the Xinzhen based company. DGI’s meteoric rise is an impressive feat for Chinese brand, one of the few that have succeeded on the global stage through its ingenuity.

DJI story began like many other successful tech startups, in a college dorm room where an ambitious young student named Frank Wang developed early prototypes of what would become the foundation of a multi billion dollar privately held empire. The model plane enthusiast had a simple goal at a time, to create a flying toy that would be sturdier than the flimsy version in the market then today, DJI, which stands for Dayang Innovations, has been dubbed the apple of the drone industry. Its product lineup includes robots and camera accessories such as gimbals and stabilizers. Its first commercially successful product was the Phantom drone, which Wang claimed in a media interview made DJI the first company to bring military great technology to the public.

Frank had an edict that if you get the product right, everything else will fall into place. Even today where we have 14,000 or more employees, 25% of our employees are research and development focused. So we’re now the only manufacturer that really manufactures everything from say, AT250 grand drone that you would use to fly for, say, family vacations and to get fun videos all the way up to an agricultural drone that would spreadseed or pesticide across farmland. We sort of have a suite of various drones that are good for search and rescue, public safety, fire, construction, mapping, everything.

But consumer drones are just a small subset of the wider drone market. Eclipse by drones used for commercial and defense purposes at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, a Ukrainian minister called out DJI for being complicit in the war through its use by the Russian military. This compel DJI to formally deny that its products are designed for military use.

We don’t adapt our products or weaponize them for combat use, and we certainly don’t support their use for combat. We’ve even gone to the step of actually stopping sales to both Russia and the Ukraine during the current conflict.

Most of the reports that I’ve seen in the media reference people buying products in third countries, where you can literally buy to any electronics retailer. It’s very hard for us to stop that. We don’t actually know who the end users of our products are in the Mo for the most part, you know, we don’t have any way of tracking that. And that would be just as true if any other consumer electronics come company though. I mean, everything from sort of Samsung to iPhone or whatever else.

The recent controversy around DJI products being used for warfare isn’t the only challenge the company has had to face. In December of 2021, the drone maker was placed on an investment blacklist by the US government, which banned American investors from buying or selling shares in the company. The US Treasury Department specifically singled out DJI for providing drones to the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which American authorities allege are being used for the surveillance of Uyghur Muslims in the region. But the move is largely symbolic as it’s a private company, meaning its ownership structure and fullest of investors are not publicly available. You know.

Nick Jones lines things up, checks his Fidelity app, looks to outside analyst to get a second opinion. Nate likes what he sees and he places the trade.

Talk about easier investing.

You know, a lot of the concerns have always stemmed from the relationship between the Chinese government and Chinese corporations. And that’s raised a lot of concerns with US regulators but also in Europe. David.

Is the head of research at Drone Analyst, providing insights in to the commercial drone industry. He was also a founding member of DGI’s enterprise business, leaving the company in 2020. With.

Any technology, there’s gonna be great applications and life saving applications and there’s things that we need to manage and avoid. And kind of the big question that all of us should have is, you know, what is each company doing as a role to police their own products and police their own efforts.

Okay. We’ve accepted unequivocally that we have had nothing to do with treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In fact, we have quite stringent language in all of our distributor agreements that states that they have to abide by US sanctions. The truth is that we’ve gone through numerous audits of our firmware and of our products, but we’ve also cooperated with the US Department of interior with their audit, with Idaho National Lab doing an audit for a department of Homeland Security, and in no case that they found that data is going anywhere it shouldn’t.

However, the US Department of defense named DJI, a Chinese military company in 2022, leading the drone maker to step up lobbying efforts in Washington against a national security ban on its products.

If you wanna share videos with us, you have to opt in to share that data. The same for flight logs. We’ve even created a local data mode. That means when you’re flying one of our products, you don’t even need to connect to the internet. You couldn’t even transfer data through a mishap or a mistake and you’re literally hermetically sealed off from the internet. Paulo.

Stagno is a cyber security expert who back in 2018 uncovered vulnerabilities affecting the Phantom 3, one of DJ’s leading drones at the time.

Basically, I perform security audit on all its component. I was able to send spoofed GPS signals to the drone in order to pretty much control all its movement in mid day as well as bypass the no fly zone that at the time DJI set on specific location that’s pretty much systematic to all the consumer drones because they do not have any mitigation for that. However.

DGI’s popularity makes it particularly susceptible to exploitation. Paulo said there.

Is like a black market of modify drones, fearware. Most of the pilot that want to, let’s say, unlock the drones, try to download such fear where in order to remove limitation about eyes and a distance from the drone operator.

In November 2022, DGI’s core crypto engine, which is fitted on most of its drones, received a pass from the US Department of Commerce for meeting critical data security requirements.

If they’ve broken any existing laws in their country, then it’s really a matter for the police to take on. It’s not something that we can actively engage on. But the.

Security concerns surrounding the use of DJI drones don’t stop there. In 2019, DJI released a drone detection platform called Aeroscope in response to potential safety and security challenges in high risk areas such as airports, prisons and government facilities.

The Ironscope, basically it’s a ground station that you can use to tracks and find drones and drones operators. For example, there are reports of Russian army using that specific technology to track them, find drones of grain drones, operators.

If any of our distributors participate in anything that’s seen as modifying for military use would be grounds for losing their distributorship. I mean, we’re, we take placing that quite seriously.

Even though it doesn’t command a monopoly with brands such as hotel and Sky Deal striving to make inroads in the market, demand for DJI products remains brisk, says Charles, an employee at a photography equipment rental company. Whenever.

We talk about stabilizers and limbo, people adjust them to DJI. And seldom we hear people talk about like, eh, I wanna inquire and know that particular other brand.

But you do carry other brands here, right? You do, yeah. And how often does that get rented out?

Once a year. One thing.

Were you aware that DJI has been in the news the past couple of years due to privacy issues, security issues and even militarization of their products. We.

Weren’t really aware of that. Yeah, but with all this, I think we still didn’t face any drop in rentals.

What’s next for DGR in the next couple of years?

Drones currently, yeah, be flown within visual line of sight with one person operating the sticks, right? Like flying, you know, we now have a product that would enable beyond visual line of sight and semi autonomous operations. And that’s something that regulations have not caught up with yet. And.

The drone maker has its eyes on the automotive industry, too. In 2016, it launched an automotive project that is now a full fledged subsidiary focused on autonomous driving.

From my experience at DJI, who is just kind of scratching the surface, is certainly a company that despite the headwinds, has a lot going for it.