DJI, Skydio in Twitter spat as Chinese manufacturer retains top ranking

DJI and Skydio will not be inviting each other to tea any time soon.

In a week in which Shenzhen, China-based DJI were confirmed as – still – the biggest commercial drone manufacturer in the world, they found themselves embroiled in yet another social media spat with American autonomous aerial vehicle manufacturer Skydio, whose relatively recent upturn in fortunes in the USA has coincided with a degeneration of relations between DJI and the USA federal government; with the latter accusing DJI of installing software capable of carrying espionage activities on their ubiquitous drones and pushing it out of security sensitive contract – hence; creating a vacuum that competing interests like Skydio – who barely had a look-in before espionage accusation started – are pining to fill.

A Drone Manufacturer Ranking 2020 Report released yesterday by research company Drone Industry Insights (DII) has DJI still unchallengingly dominating the world commercial drone market, with a market share of between 70 and 80 percent testament to this monopoly.

“The Chinese manufacturer DJI is the undisputed leader of commercial drone manufacturers and ranks first, regardless of the recent accusations of espionage by the US military and the US Department of the Interior,” says Drone Industry Insight in its report. “Between 70 and 80 percent of market share in the worldwide commercial sector speaks for itself.

“In 2nd place is another Chinese drone manufacturer, Yuneec, which started out as a manufacturer of remote-controlled hobby aircraft. They then developed from a supplier of recreational drones to one of the largest manufacturers of commercial drones. Today, the H520 and Typhoon H, in their various versions, are among the world’s best-selling drone models.”

Another manufacturer that has unashamedly sought to take advantage of DJI’s woes in the USA, Parrot, completes the top three.

DJI has proof that its drones are safe – but it seems nobody is listening

According to the DII report; “Despite difficult years with staff layoffs and continued sales declines, Parrot Drones, as part of the Parrot Group, is still one of the world’s largest manufacturers. Like many other manufacturers, Parrot is using the current opportunity in the US to offer its products to governmental entities (like the U.S. Army or the Defences Innovation Unit). Depending on the sales volume, we might see them in the dual-use category soon.”

So, the organisation formally known as DaJiang Innovation Technology Company, famous for its Phantom, Mavic and Matrice, Inspire and Spark series of drones practically has the world eating from its palm. As the DII report testifies, between Yuneec and Parrot and Autel and AeroVironment and SenseFly and Kespry and a whole lot of other organisations in the race for top spot, it should be a few years yet before DJI starts concerning itself with Skydio.

Right?

Wrong.

As it turns out, it is not enough to make great products. All it took were a few well-placed doubts about the security of those great products; and in the USA DJI is now nervously looking over its shoulder for the likes of Skydio, and barely clinging to one of its biggest clients in the world – the US federal government. More than 800 drones in the Department of Interior alone. They are all grounded now; because the American government is somehow convinced – even in the face of multiple reports to the contrary – that there is still software in those drones that is sending sensitive information to the Chinese government.

Skydio just could not resist

And DJI are convinced that their competitors are firmly behind the smear campaign that has cost them lucrative government contracts. And it is not like their business rivals are being subtle about it; in the run up to the launch of its Anafi USA drone, Parrot ran adverts that unabashedly warned people not to trust Chinese drones in general, and DJI in particular. Even Autel, a Chinese company itself, claimed to be making its drones in the USA.

And just last week, Skydio’s Head of Regulatory and Policy Affairs, Brendan Groves took part in an event that discussed the security risks posed by the continued use of DJI drones in American law enforcement circles. Hosted by The Heritage Foundation, the virtual event had the Department of Defence’s Under Secretary of Defence for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord as its guest of honour.

“We know that the volume of Chinese small UAS exports will continue to increase,” Lord declared at the meeting. “Unless there is a shift of Chinese dominance in the market share. Furthermore, we are extremely concerned about data exfiltration by these Chinese UAS.”

The smear campaign has not been without merits, as in August, Parrot, Skydio and three other organisations got approval from the DoD as trusted suppliers of drone technology commodities to federal agencies.

Que the social media barbs; still protesting their innocence, DJI – through VP of Policy and Legal Affairs Brendan Schulman – tweeted a snapshot of the various data security technology organisations that had concluded that DJI drones had passed all their security tests; and triggering Skydio’s Head of Public Safety, Fritz Reber, to take this as an invitation to take a jab at DJI’s security concerns.

Schulman didn’t take it lying; he came back with a barb of his own, which soon degenerated into the muddy eff-your-company, no, eff-your-company spat common with grown humans on the internet these days. When Schulman shared the post of a disgruntled client who complained that he was still waiting for the shipment of his Skydio drone – exactly twelve months after paying for it, Skydio responded with a quip of their own.

“You know David is doing something right when Goliath starts throwing rocks. We’re just getting started ya’ll. Get ready.”

Actually, we’d rather we did not have this kind of distraction this early in the life of a drone industry that is still trying to convince the world that it has a lot to contribute to their lives in the commercial space; with hardware and software applications that got amplified when the Coronavirus pandemic immobilised the world. We could be writing about how delivery drones have saved thousands of lives, how agriculture drones continue to make waves in precision agriculture; how inspection drones have made it safer for engineers to inspect cell towers and other high-rise work stations; and many, many other good things drones are doing for the world today.

But sod it; where is that bowl of popcorn?

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