DJI: SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
In less than 15 years, DJI has emerged as a pioneer of disruptive innovation and new-tech fashion. The tech nova stormed through its start-up period and quickly grew into the trailblazer of a brand-new industry of consumer drones that has profoundly changed people’s lifestyles and working methods. The pursuit of aesthetic, human-centered design lies in the core of its success. DJI has showcased to the world a new way to dive into the blue sea with technological innovation and lead the world in the niche market.
“Small is beautiful” is the title of a collection of essays by the British economist E.F. Schumacher published in 1973 on the importance of ‘smallness’ in large organizations. The concept has then become a frequently quoted verse in the tech world to champion small but innovative ideas.
“Miniaturization” – or being smaller – brings lower costs, lower power consumption, higher reliability and better performance. As chips have already entered the nano-scale era, electronics are following suit for more compact designs and higher functional integration. The upcoming products will continue to challenge our imagination.
For the public, the more attractive thing to imagine is the future possibility of DJI’s drones, and the application in people’s life and different scenarios enabled by its uniqueness.
Mavic Air 2 (usage scenario)
Phantom: The World Changer
The fact that humankind cannot fly had grounded the invention of technology to the two-dimensional surface of the earth at the very beginning of human civilization. In the Age of Discovery, new knowledge emerged, and new technical frameworks were established, enabling our ancestors to explore technologies that could fit the 3-dimensional curved spaces. Later, the arrival of communication technology and the era of aviation brought us a new perspective offered by satellites to establish the coordinates of 3-dimensional spaces, much better than the old-school measuring techniques only viable on high terrains and mountains. But satellites are expensive, and there are also many physical constraints on the technology.
The launch of the DJI drones featuring precision hovering, computing capability, and independent communication and transmission systems has made it possible to construct a 3D digital space at a lower altitude and a lower cost. Anyone can fly a DJI drone with training at a cost that is extremely affordable.
But that was not the goal when DJI was founded in 2006. DJI’s first challenge was to answer the question: how can we realize autonomous hovering control of UAVs? To find the answer required the knowledge and skills of multiple disciplines. That was the beginning of its follow-up research and development in various areas including flight control, propulsion, communication, and camera systems, through which DJI gained its rich experience with both software and hardware.
Phantom 4 Pro
Starting from 2010, aerial photography (AP) using multi-rotors has become a hit among an increasing number of RC airplane flyers. The potential for multi-rotor aircraft to serve as an excellent, stable carrier of – and computing platform for – spatial data began to be revealed. Seeing this as an opportunity, DJI, based on its previous experience and research achievements, launched its Phantom series in 2012, which soon became the benchmark product of small-sized civilian drones.
Before Phantom, photographers had to rely on aerial vehicles, for instance, airplanes, helicopters, or even hot-air balloons, to bring themselves and the equipment into the air. Obviously, that was costly and dangerous, making aerial shots quite rare in movies and TV shows at that time.
Things have changed, however. More intelligent, easy-to-use devices and optimized drone-mounted camera lenses have lowered the threshold of aerial photography. Drone cameras have become the new toy for both geeks and artists. Even amateurs can reproduce magnificent views with the device. For professional filmmakers, AP becomes a new visual language to express their ingenuity.
Four years after DJI’s first Phantom drone took off on the market, the Mavic series was born, unveiling the era of foldable civilian drones. The portability brought by the foldable design indeed pushed AP to a new level. The once remote, isolated, and even perilous places out in the wild could be recorded for the first time by adventurers with their drones. But no one ever thought that flying a drone camera could save people’s lives until 2018, when a Mavic Pro detected a missing British mountaineer on Broad Peak, the world’s 12th highest mountain. The drone was launched to capture the mountain view and accidentally caught on the camera the mountaineer who was still breathing at an altitude of 8000 meters. The rescue was soon coordinated with the help of the drone, and a life was saved.
Mavic Air 2 (folded)
Mavic Air 2 (unfolded)
Mavic Air 2 (usage scenario)
Osmo: Consumer Market Blockbuster
Vibration has been a paramount challenge in aerial photography. To achieve more stable images, the film industry has made numerous attempts, including years of efforts in mounting large servo gimbals onto big UAVs, but with very limited improvement. A relatively successful solution in the early days was laser gyros with redundancy. But due to its size and heavy weight (dozens of kilos), the bulky system could only be mounted at the front of or under a helicopter, which was expensive, and with compromised reliability.
In 2009, DJI tried to produce gimbals with Brushless DC electric motors (BLDC motors). The idea was not accepted by the industry as feasible because it increased the granularity by two orders of magnitude. Three years later, at the Toy Fair 2012 in Germany, DJI introduced Zenmuse Z15, the world’s first aerial stabilization gimbal with a BLDC motor.
The Zenmuse Z15 gimble system for the then-popular mirrorless cameras, NEX5 and NEX7, was compatible with the S800 multi-rotor flying platform for AP. For the first time in the remote-control AP history, DJI realized an affordable solution for the general public. The launch of Z15 triggered the enthusiasm of the industry for developing 3-axis BLDC gimbals. But for a very long time, compared with the solutions based on open-source algorithms that could only realize stabilization on two axes, Z15 remained as the only control system that had hi-precision control on all three axes.
DJI’s 3-axis gimbal technology enabled the outshining success of its Phantom series in the AP device market. It was not until the release of the foldable Mavic series that Phantom finally handed the thrown to the new market maker.
In 2014, increasing demand for stable handheld devices for ground-based photography was bubbling as DJI’s drones were spreading their wings in the professional filming industry. Back at that time, in order to use DJI’s 3-axis gimbal system, some photographers even developed a compromise by handholding or hoisting the Inspire drone for ground-based shooting. To meet the stronger demand for handheld camera stabilization, DJI launched the Ronin series, the 3-axis handheld gimbal systems.
The Ronin gimbal systems for professional cameras have provided more possibilities for professional filming, especially for those scenes that cannot be set up with large tracks or cannot be shot with large equipment.
In 2017, Ronin embraced its upgrade. The newly released Ronin 2 further spread DJI’s influence in the professional filming industry with its complete solution for portable shooting.
In 2018, DJI launched Ronin S, its new gimbal system designed in a single-handed form factor for DSLR and mirrorless cameras. Just one year later, a lightweight version, Ronin SC followed to the market. Soon, single-handed handheld stabilizers have become part of the standard shooting kits for the film industry, especially in small- and medium-sized filming studios.
While creating new solutions for professionals, DJI’s cameras and gimbal stabilizers have also brought fresh experiences with video shooting to the mass-market consumers. The explosive development of vlogging and sky-rocketing consumer demand expedited the debut of the Osmo series in 2015, DJI’s consumer filming platforms. The first Osmo device adopted a smaller but more effective 3-axis stabilization system with an integrated camera, which was the world’s first handheld camera with a gimbal system that offered effortless operation and smooth footage. The novel innovation allowed even beginners to produce cinematic videos.
DJI OSMO Pocket
To catch up with the ever-upgrading mobile phone camera, DJI launched its gimbal for smartphones in 2018, together with a software kit offering improved consumer experience of shooting, editing, and sharing. That was Osmo Mobile 2. Following that, DJI soon released its foldable version, Osmo Mobile 3, in 2019, and defined it as a video creation tool to extensively improve the experience of smartphone video shooting and sharing. The original idea of the first Osmo device with an integrated camera was further minimized into DJI’s newer product, Osmo Pocket, a more compact member of the series. It was the very first of its kind, and undoubtedly shook the market. Since its launch, the pocket-size device has been savvied by influencers and celebrities as a trendy toy and the coolest tool for vlogging.
With each one of its products, from flight control to multi-rotor UAV, from stabilization gimbals to Phantom, Mavic, Ronin, and Osmo, DJI brings professional technologies – that had once been limited to professionals – to general consumers in a simple, easy way, allowing consumers around the world to benefit from technological advancement and innovation.
DJI OM4 (usage scenario)
Mavic: The Know-how of Innovation
The ready-to-fly, easy-to-use Phantom series, featuring precision hovering and image transmission, has attracted the attention of multiple industries and professions since it entered the market. As soon as the first two Phantom models were released, the drones started to take off for missions in areas such as power supply and security. With input from experts from different backgrounds, DJI has developed various enterprise drone solutions and flight platforms with tailored specs and functions.
Before DJI released its civilian UAV products, there was no other standardized, large-scale low-altitude hovering operation scheme on the market. But once a new technology was born to offer a low-cost realization of such a possibility, it would immediately be adopted and modified by different industries that had craved such a solution. The opportunity was there. And DJI took full advantage of it.
Along with the implementation of policies regarding digital government and technology-strengthened police forces, the IT system of traffic management in China has been improved with optimized facilities and infrastructures, including different types of terminals, network connection and command centers. The engagement of drones as one of the traffic police terminals has dramatically improved their operational efficiency, and provided new contingency solutions with outstanding performance. However, drones alone cannot serve the goals of the entire digital government or digital city packages without mature IT infrastructure, which must be invested in by corresponding industries.
With low-cost precision hovering capability, drones have become efficient data terminals and the edge computing devices supported by the mature IT infrastructure. As the Internet economy is prospering, the development of drones driven by the consumer demands on the market has truly inspired the potential of UAVs. DJI did not plan to develop UAVs for industrial applications, but after DJI became unique in the field of scientific exploration of electronic engineering, it has parachuted onto the main runway of information industry and technology, with remarkable achievements in fundamental technical breakthroughs.
In the consumer market, products are usually categorized to target consumers’ needs. That is why drones are classified into “consumer drones” and “industrial drones”. But in reality, drones are simply tools to perform tasks. Sometimes the same drone is used for entertainment purposes as well as industrial operations.
At the Microsoft Global Developer Conference in May 2018 – only four months after DJI released its foldable consumer drone, Mavic Air – Microsoft showed how it could work with Azure IoT Edge and AI to automatically identify and pinpoint potential risks during the inspection of gas and oil pipelines.
Just as PCs are platforms for both professional software and games, civilian drones are flying platforms of data collection, computing and hovering for different purposes. Its application can be expanded to a much wider industrial territory far beyond itself. There is no clear line between “consumer” or “industrial” applications for the device itself. Cost, reliability and technology thresholds are the key factors that decide whether drones will be quickly and widely adopted in a certain area.
It is easier for drones to access the industries with relatively mature IT and automation infrastructure. The collaboration between DJI and China Southern Power Grid (CSG) is a typical example. CSG began to adopt DJI’s drones for grid inspection in 2013. Through this cooperation, they successfully developed auxiliary drone operation functions such as automatic battery charging, route planning, inspection patrolling and drone defect analysis. Guangdong Power Grid Company, a subsidiary of CSG, proposed to launch a full autopilot inspection drone fleet by 2025. Not long ago, Guangdong Power Grid Company released its new app for autopilot called “Zhixuntong (Smart Patrol)”, which was developed with DJI’s Onboard SDK. The app has successfully supported the autopilot patrol inspection conducted by over 5,000 drones.
DJI’s latest commercial drone platform, Matrice 300 RTK, which weighs only 3.6 kilograms, features an impressive 6-directional sensing and positioning function, 15km max transmission of HD images, high-performance battery power supporting 55-min max flight time, and mounting configurations up to 3 payloads with a maximum takeoff weight of 9kg. The platform can resist winds up to 15m/s with an ingress protection rating of IP45. It can survive extreme working conditions with a wide spectrum of operating temperature (-20~50°C) and can work safely, efficiently, and reliably on the 7,000-meter-high plateau. DJI’s latest multi-sensor payload for Matrice 300 RTK is H20T. Being the most powerful and highly integrated solution currently available on the market, H20T weighs only 830g but offers 17.5x optical zoom power, wide-angle shooting, infrared thermal imaging and laser measuring capability. An invincible combination like this can be easily folded and packed to fit into a car trunk and carried by one person.
Matrice 300 RTK & Zenmuse H20
All these cannot be realized without DJI’s integrated approach to the design of UAVs, including the overall structure, avionics, system performance, propulsion system, structural strength and vibration, integrated heat spreader, and electromagnetic compatibility. The balance of the performance among and coupling of different modules is complex, and requires systematic design enabled by a highly coordinated R&D process. DJI’s products are undoubtedly the best proof of that practice.
The new generation of DJI’s enterprise drones has leaped forward, from single product design and combination to an integrated task performance system that is designed in a highly integrated way for coordinated, high-efficiency operation. This new approach takes all systems and components of a UAV – the payload system, the flight control system, and even the cloud-based operation management software – into consideration. It is another big step forward in promoting the smarter, easier, professional, inclusive application of the new technology.
Drone for power supply industry
To ensure flight safety, DJI has redesigned the flight control interface following the standards of the aviation industry to provide data in a more intuitive and ergonomic way, including the flight parameters, navigation parameters, obstacle information and collaborative operation data. Data collection has thus become more reliable, well-organized, highly responsive and effortless, contributing to both the efficiency and safety of flying the drones. DJI also designed a brand-new human-computer interaction interface and dual remote controller mode for its highly integrated payloads and smart functions. That has brought working efficiency and safety to a higher level. DJI’s UAV Health Management System (UHMS) monitors, diagnoses and gives reminders of maintenance to every module of the UAV, which ensures the safety and reduces the need for manual labor.
To improve working efficiency, DJI has also designed a smart feature set. Smart tracking, precision positioning and pinpointing, and real-time mapping have brought revolutionary improvements to the ability to acquire information of the operation area. The system can synchronize key information to other ground operators and command terminals, open a complete set of information and intelligence links, thus enhance the situation awareness ability of the mission area. No matter for AP mapping or utility inspection, DJI can offer sophistication, precision, safety and reliability to the automation required in all kinds of missions, and liberate human labor from the heavy, repetitive and dangerous operations.
DJI has been pursuing more compact designs with more powerful task systems, higher efficiency and easier control and operation to empower more industries with new technologies, enable the potential for higher productivity, and protect more life and properties. That is the perpetual driving force of DJI’s industrial exploration.