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DJI'S WAY OR THE HIGHWAY

There have only ever been three original ideas in consumer drones

Mike Murphy
By Mike Murphy

Technology editor

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For the last few years at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, the south hall of the main convention center has been home to drones, robots, 3D printers, and other emerging technology trends. This year, 3D printers were relegated to a small section behind the massive auto area in the convention center’s north hall, robots milled around generally being useless, and the drone displays felt considerably smaller than in recent years.

That could partly be because of recent contractions in the drone market. Just as this year’s show got underway,  GoPro announced it would abandon the drone business a year after trying and failing to crack it open. Parrot, one of the early leaders in the consumer drone market, didn’t even have a booth this year. About all that was left was DJI, the Chinese manufacturer that makes some of the most popular drones (although actual sales numbers are hard to come by), and a bunch of companies trying to copy DJI.

One reason DJI has come out on top is that it’s managed to continue to innovate during its 12-year history. It introduced the compact Phantom drone series in 2013, which quickly became the gold standard for knock-offs in consumer drones. At CES a few years ago, one company had a line of drones indistinguishable from DJI’s Phantoms, except that they were painted orange. When I asked the difference between the drones, the representative told me: “Well, they’re orange.”

DJI also made one of the first foldable (but still useful) drones, the Mavic Pro, in 2016. It fit easily into a small backpack, or a really large pants pocket, but still recorded professional-looking footage.

Here’s what it looks like:

DJI
The DJI Mavic Pro.

And here’s one of the knock-offs from the CES 2018 show floor:

Quartz/Mike Murphy
A new drone from a company called Airlango.

The drone, from a company called Airlango, looks mightily similar to DJI’s drone, albeit without any distinct features of its own. Here’s another one from a company called Autel:

Quartz/Mike Murphy
Autel’s Mavic lookalike.

The biggest difference? It’s red.

After the Mavic, in 2017 DJI released the Spark, a tiny drone that can follow you around, recognize your face, and fly by following your hand gestures, all while recording HD videos. It was one of Quartz’s gadgets of the year.

Here it is:

DJI
The DJI Spark.

And here’s not it:

Quartz/Mike Murphy
This drone from Fly looks a lot like the Spark.

Like many other industries dominated by one early player (look at all the wearables hocked for years at CES, or all the smartphones that look a lot like the iPhone), the drone industry has become commoditized, and companies are trying to ride the coattails of the leader. Whether DJI can keep finding new ways to get people to buy drones, or whether the consumer market will continue to consolidate around DJI, is unclear. But for once, Chinese knock-offs aren’t ripping off ideas from overseas; they’re stepping on the designs of one of China’s first home-grown consumer electronics success stories in DJI.

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