For China’s Shenzhen-based DJI Technology Co., business is better than good. The company—not even ten years old—owns roughly 70 percent of the nascent, but booming $2 billion consumer drone market, according to analysts.
It's white, quadrotor aircraft—known by the brand name “Phantom”—are now pervasive within the public consciousness. Every time a user flies one over a crowd at a sporting event or crashes one on the White House lawn, the brand gets immeasurable free exposure. Last year, the company did $500 million in revenue, and is expected to top $1 billion this year.
In the world of consumer drones, DJI is industry leader, but Chris Anderson, CEO of Berkeley-based 3D Robotics, thinks his company can change all that. Last week, 3D Robotics (or 3DR) released its latest consumer drone offering, called Solo, in Best Buy (bby) stores across North America (it’s also available online). Thanks to Solo, 3DR thinks it has developed a product that will upset the industry status quo and eventually propel the company ahead of rival DJI in a market expected to be worth $4.5 billion by 2020.
“They’re already in a bit of a boxing match,” Frost and Sullivan Senior Industry Analyst Michael Blades says of the competition between the two companies, citing 3DR’s snapping up of some of DJI’s key U.S. talent. The personnel acquisitions follow a legal dispute between the Chinese company and its exclusive North American dealer last year. 3DR has made no secret of its intentions to become the leading global supplier of drone platforms by challenging DJI for its commanding market share. If successful, the company would tilt the commercial drone industry away from China and toward California, where a nascent, but growing drone industry has taken root in Silicon Valley.
Though the release of one product isn’t enough to create a seismic shift all on its own, Anderson isn’t coy about his confidence in the Solo platform or whether he thinks it marks an inflection point for 3DR and the drone industry at large. “This is the best consumer ‘copter ever made,” Anderson says of Solo. “And we think it’s probably the best commercial ‘copter ever made as well.”
The somewhat nebulous distinction between “consumer drones” and “commercial drones” is exactly what 3DR has taken aim at with Solo. Consumer drones are typically defined as those marketed at individual consumers for personal use at a price point low enough that one doesn’t need a corporate budget to buy and operate. Commercial drones make up a more sophisticated, more expensive category of aircraft aimed at businesses that want to use drones as part of a for-profit enterprise.
The fiscal boundary separating consumer and commercial drones is itself somewhat murky. Some industry analysts place drones costing $10,000 or less in the consumer category (unless they are being used specifically for a commercial purpose), while others draw the line at $5,000. Starting at $1,000 without any additional accessories, Solo fits somewhere in between low-end recreational drones costing just a few hundred bucks and higher-end photography and videography drones that can cost several thousand dollars. For that price point it is remarkably high-tech; it comes out of the box packing a bevy of pre-loaded software features designed to assist users in both piloting the aircraft and capturing cinematic photography and video (more on those features here).
What differentiates 3DR’s new drone from competitors—including DJI’s new Phantom 3, which packs its own suite of similar features—Anderson says, is a higher degree of onboard computer intelligence and an open software architecture. Both individual consumers and commercial enterprises can develop or buy different cameras and sensors for their aircraft, design task-specific software interfaces or custom apps for the platform, and otherwise bend Solo to their wills.
“All the interesting stuff is going to happen on the software side: More apps, more features, more cloud services,” Anderson says. 3DR likes to analogize Solo with the smartphone, which didn’t really take off until third parties were able to develop an ecosystem of apps around the hardware. “It’s essentially a software platform that does a small set of things really well, and now because it’s open you’re going to see all these other things created by us and by others.”
Anderson and his team at 3DR are particularly bullish on this point, but whether or not it’s enough to grab significant market share from an entrenched DJI and a throng of new competitors pouring into the consumer and commercial drone markets remains to be seen.
“They have the capability to make user-specific aircraft—customized platforms for whoever,” Blades says. “Solo is therefore positioned to be a Phantom killer. I don’t know if it’s going to dominate the market like the Phantom has, but these guys are smart enough and they have the experience.”
But there’s plenty of uncertainty in the marketplace as well, not least the Federal Aviation Administration’s pending rules on exactly how drones might legally be used for commercial purposes in the U.S. FAA Deputy Administrator Michael Whitaker told the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee yesterday that final rules should be in place within a year, but no one is sure exactly what those rules will entail or how different classes of platforms will be regulated.
Then there’s the marketplace itself, which can’t sustain its breakneck growth indefinitely. DJI has been able to seize such a huge portion of the consumer drones market mainly by being a first mover with a quality product at a comparatively low price point. Serious competitors have been relatively scarce, offering DJI the opportunity to more than double it’s year-over-year revenue more than once over the past five years.
The opportunities for that kind of growth will dwindle as drone technology becomes commoditized. Serious new competitors with ample backing—companies like camera maker GoPro, for instance—are moving into the consumer drone space alongside countless startups backed by venture capital and crowdfunding campaigns alike.
“The way I visualize it, we’re getting near the top of the curve and we’re going to reach a plateau here in the next few years in the consumer space,” says Colin Snow, CEO and founder of Drone Analyst in Redwood City, Calif. “If we’re just focusing on 3DR and DJI, we’re probably two- thirds of the way up that curve. That’s not scientific, but that’s my guess.”
Snow refers to both DJI and 3DR’s new products as “prosumer,” but points out that they haven’t yet been widely tested in that professional or commercial role. For 3DR to grab a significant portion of DJI’s market share it will have to successfully make the leap from consumer to commercial and do so in a way that DJI does not. And, Snow says, there’s no guarantee that will happen.
“As soon as you get into more upscale commercial uses, it becomes more about the camera and not so much about the drone itself,” he says. And while Solo is a good turnkey product, so are DJI’s popular Phantom and Inspire series. “DJI has been in the business longer, they’ve been solving these problems longer, they’ve got the infrastructure. I don’t see any change from the way things are currently going.”