The U.S. domestic drone industry has found itself at a disadvantage when it comes to producing these useful remote-controlled flying machines in America. Chinese drone maker DJI remains the king of the industry, controlling more than 70% of the global drone market.
“China benefits from a manufacturing ecosystem that goes back many decades,” said Adam Bry, co-founder and CEO of Skydio, a U.S. drone maker. “They’ve been building consumer electronics for many decades. Our cost structure is quite a bit higher than our peers coming from China, which is why we’ve chosen to compete on the basis of having a product that’s got kind of a different value proposition based on AI.”
Concerns about data security have prompted a handful of lawmakers in the U.S. to push legislation and policy initiatives both at the state level and federal level restricting the use of drones produced by Chinese companies. DJI drones are currently used by state university researchers, police departments, firefighters and other groups across the U.S. that could be affected by potential bans on Chinese-produced drones.
“Any attempts to ban DJI are really not just damaging DJI, but damaging the entire ecosystem around drones,” said Adam Welsh, head of global policy at DJI, in an interview with CNBC. “There’s a lot at stake here. We really hope that the politicians will look at the facts, actually look at the audit reports that have been done by U.S. government institutions, as well as private companies that show that our products are data secure.”
The ever-growing militarization of drones has shown the line between a consumer product and a weapon of war is thin. In the Russia-Ukraine war, both sides are using thousands of drones to try and gain a tactical upper hand in the battles that have rolled across eastern Ukraine. Drones were also used in the recent attacks by the militant organization Hamas against Israel.
“If people weren’t sure about the military efficacy of small and micro drones, we’re seeing it in spades on a daily basis in the Ukraine-Russia conflict,” said Mark Montgomery, senior director of the Center on Cyber and Technology Innovation at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “It is going to be key that the U.S.-produced drones, or drones produced by trusted allies, become more affordable.”
Watch the video above to find out if the U.S. drone industry can compete with Chinese drone producers.