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Get that drone out of my face

How the death of an American company led to Chinese dominance in the small drone market.

About seven years ago, an American drone hardware company got their butt kicked in a race for technological dominance.  Did you notice? You should have.

In 2009, a man named Chris Anderson co-founded a company called 3D Robotics with Jordi Munoz. At the time, there were very few reliable small drones on the market. 3DR, as they were known to most consumers, staked their claim in the ready to fly, or RTF, aircraft market. All you had to do was buy the system and the moment you pulled it out (after a short calibration of course), you were ready to put that bad boy in the air… and crash it right into your ex-girlfriend’s window.

What made 3DR different was their approach to the development of autopilot software. Adopting an “open-source” concept, 3DR sold hardware to fly drones with software designed, predominantly, by input from the global Ardupilot community. By taking advantage of the public’s input, 3DR crowd-sourced an ever-growing desire to fly.

We could have been so good together….

3DR put out the Iris, a bomb-proof drone that, to this day, anyone who flies it will tell you that little beauty can take a beating. It was hobby grade, however. Not the super clean drone you’re used to seeing these days but a good start. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a Chinese company called Da Jiang Industries, know to you as DJI, stepped onto the market. Their products: the Phantom, the Inspire, the Matrice (to name a few).

3DR and DJI took completely opposite approaches to developing their drones. 3DR used the public. DJI also took advantage of the public software… by consuming it. Then they took investment from the Chinese government.

DJI development of the Phantom placed ease-of-use ahead of everything else. And that became the “killer app.”

To compete, 3DR developed the 3DR Solo and ordered over 10,000 new drones to meet their expected demands. Everyone loved it… but not as much as the Phantom. In response, DJI cut their cost in half to corner the market–a move they could do because of capital investment from the government. And in one fell swoop, 3DR was done. Out-priced and over stocked, 3DR collapsed. They couldn’t get rid of their inventory fast enough. By March, 2016, they were laying off the bulk of their work force.

That miscalculation pushed 3DR out of the industry and almost overnight, the race was over. China won. Have you heard of these little drones? Maybe, maybe not. But I guarantee you’ve watched video created by them. You’ve also walked past them whenever you go into a Costco.

Why do you care? Well, in 2016, DJI drones began proliferating across the industrial spaces and into government use. They even found their way to the military. No big deal, right? It’s a good drone. Low cost. Users needed it. Some in the military refused to fly anything but the DJI Mavik.

Why do you have to be so beautiful?

Well, I hate to break it to you, but there was one major problem. In order to fly one of those groovy little drones, you had to create an account with DJI. Once you did, your contact information was placed in their server. They also offered the option to store video. Sound good? No, that should not sound good. Those servers were in Shanghai. Remember that part about DJI being partially owned by the Chinese government? Well, that meant all the user information and video collected by these drones was being put into Chinese servers, for the Chinese government to access.

So, suddenly, thousands of Chinese drones were conducted surveillance in the United States and across the globe facilitated by the general public. This surveillance data could be used to populate databases, localize activity, train machine learning algorithms. See where I’m going with this? AI needs data to learn. All data. And we’re just feeding that machine like a Play Doh extruder.

Ralphy demonstrating the processing and curation of data

DJI denies this of course. But they can’t deny the facts: servers in china store user data, and the Chinese government funded DJI. The same can be said of Huawei cell towers… and TikTok.

To combat this, in 2017 the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord, drafted a National Defense Authorization Act prohibiting the inclusion of Chinese components in government drones. This included Chinese drones themselves.

Unfortunately, DJI now owns more than 75% of the drone market. That’s 75% of all commercial small robots flying over everyone’s heads storing data in China. You can make the same argument about TikTok in each of our phones.

Why am I mentioning this all now? Well, two reasons. The first is the war in Ukraine. Both Ukrainian soldiers and the Russians have been using DJI drones for surveillance and reconnaissance. The big issue is that DJI also sells counter-drone technology called the Aeroscope to detect and localize their drones. This is a textbook example of “sell the swords, sell the shields.” This has driven Ukrainian forces back to open-source solutions like, what could have been, 3DR.

The bright side, when 3DR buckled, they continued building autopilots in the form of the PixHawk and the open-source community pressed on. It’s a good thing, too. Because, without them, the Ukrainian forces wouldn’t have an alternative in their fight against the Russians.

The other reason I mention all this has to do with what happens to all of this data once it is aggregated into one location. And that, my friends, is what we’ll discuss next time. I’ll also talk about the next drone race and why everyone keeps putting guns on robot dogs.

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J.L. Hancock
J.L. Hancock

Drawing from a graduate level education in national security studies, foreign language expertise, and experience as a technician embedded with special operations forces, J.L. Hancock writes fiction that reflects the complexities of the modern world. His eye for detail and authentic narrative is rooted in the many lives he has lived, the worlds he has seen, and the people who inspire him.