Dà-Jiāng Innovations Science and Technology Co., Ltd is a manufacturer of unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, based in Shenzhen, China. By most accounts, DJI is a dominant player in the marketplace with an estimated market share of about 75 percent. Their product line includes the prosumer Phantom 3 and 4 series and the newly announced Mavic. The Inspire series and the Matrice round out their professional UAV line. DJI also manufactures controllers, gimbals, and cameras.
I sat down with Michael Perry, director of strategic partnerships for DJI, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last month. We discussed how DJI’s drones and software are used in GIS and geospatial applications.
Q: Perhaps we could start by providing our readers some background information about your different GIS solutions.
A: All of our platforms have different GIS compatibility and usability depending on quality of data. Phantom 3 can do basic GIS work. What we’ve heard from our users is that the data aren’t as useful as they could be because of different sensor constraints. We’ve improved the metadata significantly on all of our platforms but the limiting factor was the sensor on the Phantom 3 and 4. It was a 12MP COM sensor, so you would occasionally get rolling shutter effect and things like that. What is really cool now is that we have built a mechanical shutter into the lens of the Phantom 4 Pro and the Inspire 2, and we have added 20 MP sensors. This enables users to get a lot more detail while flying at higher altitudes. Mechanical shutters also reduce the possibility that lines are going to be skewed in the dataset. With these added features we are seeing a heightened interest in these platforms for GIS applications.
The second part of our GIS solution is our newly released GS Pro (Ground Station Pro) software update. This is an iPad downloadable app that updates our original ground station system. Our first release of a ground station system allowed you to set different ground control points, do flight planning and other things, but it was pretty constrained because it only allowed you to set a certain amount of waypoints. Although this update is more fully integrated, the most exciting thing, with reference to geospatial applications, is you are able to set parameters dedicated to specific missions. For example, you can say this is going to be a 2D or 3D mapping application or a mission to calculate cut and fill volumes for a mining project. Our updated solution creates autonomous flight plans that makes sure the mission is done correctly with respect to aircraft speed, altitude, image resolution, front image overlap, side image overlap, and course angle.
Mission planning screen. (Source: DJI)
Screen to set mission speed and altitude. (Source: DJI)
Screen to set mission front and side image overlap, course angle and margin. (Source: DJI)
GS Pro is compatible with the Phantom 3 and 4 series, Inspire series, Matrice and Mavic Pro. Our DJI platform combined with GS Pro will generate data that can then be put into applications from the likes of DroneDeploy, Pix4D, Drone2Map or any of the other software providers that generate a point cloud solution.
Q: Is this an end-to-end solution?
A: We have a lot of the basic building blocks but many of our customers say, ‘That’s great, but you have an 80 percent solution and we want a 100 percent solution.’ We’ve found there will always be applications where we don’t have the expertise but our developers do. As an example, we have a lot of intelligent flight functions built inside Mavic Pro, Phantom 4 Pro, and our other systems, but at the same time, there are customers that want an XYZ application built in. We say, ‘No, but there is a company called Autoflight [Logic], recently purchased by Hangar, that does amazing flight missions.’ You have granular control of the auto pilot function so you can do very precise planning of shots in a way that our typical customer is not going to need, but for say, surveyors, this is a perfect solution and we’re happy to recommend these types of companies. Another example of a referral is DroneBase. They have a network of several thousand pilots or drone service providers and, if you want a job done, you can order it through their app or you can contact their team directly and they will connect you with a local pilot that can do the surveying job for you.
We have the tools, components, drone platform, and software for GIS applications. Our larger drones can now carry a RTK GPS that provides centimeter accuracy — that is huge! If you don’t want to do that, an Australian company called Propeller Aero has another solution. With GPS you have some variance, but what they have done is to combine the software side with hardware markers that they put out on a surveying site. The markers log their GPS location and then all of the data collected from the site syncs with those markers. This enables them to get 1 CM/pixel resolution.
Q: How does your ecosystem work?
A: For us it is important to foster a strong ecosystem so people can come to our platform and get “X”. That “X” could be whatever solution they are trying to achieve. Whether it’s orthography, 3D modeling, a site survey or whatever output, the customer is focused on the end result. So it is incumbent on us to do whatever we can to foster a strong ecosystem.
What is really exciting is we have been doing that a lot on the consumer side and are ramping up our work to address the enterprise side. In December, we had an event in San Francisco called AirWorks. GE, Union Pacific, and a bunch of other companies interested in learning about GIS and other drone applications attended it. That is where we had the opportunity to connect the ecosystem together. On the enterprise side, we had different solution providers like Pix4D, PrecisionHawk, and DroneDeploy and on the service side we had Measure, DroneBase, Hangar, and of course our dealer network as well. So if we can have all of these players talking together, then DJI can be there to provide the platform and refer work out to our ecosystem, and they will figure it out and generate solutions on their own.
Q: How do you see the surveying market? In other words, is the drone service provider (pilot) your market or is the surveyor the ultimate market?
A: Good question. What we’re seeing is a mix of both. It depends on the company, their scale, and what they want to do, so for some companies that are doing enough surveying work, they will need to buy the platform. But you also have other companies that need it for a very limited time, maybe only 20 minutes per week. In that case, it really doesn’t make sense for them to purchase the platform, learn the system, and attain a remote pilot certificate. The alternative for them may be to hire a provider so they can get the data they need without going through the expense and learning curve of attaining a remote pilot certificate, so we feel there is an opportunity to balance both markets.
Q: How do you see the GIS market changing with respect to drones?
A: You see companies betting in different ways. You have companies like DroneBase that believes, at least for the next couple years, that having a dedicated pilot on site that fully knows the system is going to be critical to promoting business. Hangar, on the other hand, is looking to completely automate the solution. The surveyor in charge knows the basics of the platform, but everything else is done by the system itself. In other words, there are two different ways of thinking about it, and we’re pretty much agnostic about it. We just want the technology to be adopted, and we’re happy to enable whoever is going to speed that process along.
Q: Why has DJI been able to so successfully dominate the UAV market?
A: Many companies don’t understand how difficult it is to develop hardware for flight. We were lucky because of our location and because we got into the industry early, more than 10 years ago. Therefore, we had the luxury of time. We first started development on a flight controller, then we looked at propulsion, and then we started looking at the airframe, then cameras and stabilization. We researched and built these components piece by piece over years. Now we are able to focus on some of the icing on the cake — stuff like computer vision, optical avoidance, and sensing.
For us it is frustrating to see a lot of companies come out with flashy advertising, but when you crack their UAV open you see PCBs with inexpensive components. Drone Valley, a New Jersey company, does drone teardowns. Their work shows how DJI focuses on using more expensive components, and as a further example of our quality, that we build soldering joints that are smoothly rounded rather than a typical soldering joint that has a point at the top. This is important because these points can act as antennas inside the system and send out RF signals that may interfere with the operation of a UAV. Our 10 years of experience has enabled us to accumulate knowledge like this and apply it to building a more reliable platform.