DJI Already Dominates Consumer Drones; Now It’s Getting into Delivery

The Chinese manufacturer’s first delivery drone, the FlyCart 30, immediately becomes one of the largest last-mile drones on the market.

DJI delivery drone FlyCart 30

DJI’s new FlyCart 30 delivery drone with winch and crane (left) and cargo box (right) configurations. [Courtesy: DJI]

Chinese drone maker DJI won’t settle for its estimated 70 percent share of the global consumer drone market.

In a move that could have major implications for the company and the drone industry at large, DJI this week unveiled FlyCart 30, its first delivery drone. Aptly named for its 30-kilogram (66-pound) payload in standard configuration, the new product marks DJI’s entry into a largely untapped market for delivery via the small, buzzing aircraft.

For now, the new model will only be available in China. But DJI told FLYING it will consider launches in other markets down the line.

Until now, DJI made drones almost exclusively for hobbyists and industrial enterprise customers. Most of its designs are camera drones equipped with high-definition lenses, video recorders, and other aerial imaging equipment. Some models include thermal or infrared sensors, mapping software, advanced communications, and other features designed for surveillance and inspection.

The firm’s camera drones are considered to be very high quality. They’ve been used to film several high-profile TV shows, including Game of Thrones, The Amazing Race, Better Call Saul, and American Ninja Warrior. Other DJI camera drones include the high-performance Mavic, the low-cost Spark, and the hexarotor Flame Wheel.

None of them, however, can deliver a package or an order of chicken wings. DJI was founded in 2006, years before the likes of Amazon Prime Air or Alphabet’s Wing began exploring drone delivery. Those firms have had decadelong runways to develop their services. But DJI has decided it’s finally ready to compete.

So, let’s break down the new drone and its implications for the industry.

The Specs

Off the shelf, FlyCart 30 will be one of the largest short-range delivery drones on the market. But other features, such as a configurable delivery mechanism, dual-control pilot capabilities, and a rare level of durability (more on these in a bit), are what really make this model stand out.

FlyCart 30 uses a four-axis, eight-propeller multirotor design powered by a pair of proprietary Intelligent Flight Batteries. With both batteries installed, it can carry up to 66 pounds of cargo at close to 45 mph over a range of about 10 sm (8.7 nm), staying airborne for as long as 18 minutes. That range extends to about 12 sm (10.8 nm) with an empty load.

Customers moving heavier cargo can remove one of the two batteries to give the drone a maximum payload of 40 kilograms (88 pounds). However, DJI recommends using both—if one fails during flight, the other can power the rest of the mission on its own.

Redundancy is just one of many safety features aboard FlyCart 30. The model also comes equipped with an intelligent obstacle detect-and-avoid software, dual radar capabilities, an ADS-B signal receiver, and a built-in parachute for controlled descent in emergencies. Operators can even preprogram the drone with emergency landing points before sending it on its route.

It comes equipped with DJI’s O3 image transmission system, which broadcasts live video, and can transmit a strong signal up to 12 sm (10.8 nm) away, opening up beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations. The model is also compatible with the company’s 4G cellular dongle.

Unlike most delivery drones, which in the U.S. typically fly below 400 feet, FlyCart 30 can operate nearly 10,000 feet in the air, allowing it to serve China’s mountainous landscape. And like other DJI models, it’s foldable, making it incredibly portable.

Now let’s get into the really cool stuff.

Most drones get performance anxiety when flying in rain or high winds, but FlyCart 30 isn’t most drones. It’s billed as an “all-weather machine” and rated IP55, meaning it protects against dust and moderate rain. It can also fly in winds up to 26 mph (22.5 knots) and in temperatures between minus-4 and 113 degrees Fahrenheit. So, unlike many other drone delivery firms, DJI’s operations won’t be limited to clear skies.

A second neat feature is the drone’s dual-control piloting mechanism. Companies typically seek to assign as many drones as possible to a pilot, but DJI came up with a way to enable the reverse. So long as each has a controller, operators can hand over control of the drone to one another with the push of a button, without interrupting flight. This enables deliveries over longer distances (or BVLOS of one of the pilots), circumvents signal disturbances, and adds another layer of safety.

Flying, though, is only half the battle in drone delivery. So DJI also gave FlyCart 30 a swappable delivery mechanism, with the option to use either a cargo box or a winch-and-crane system.

The first option uses standard-sized expanded polypropylene (EPP) containers, which can hold up to 2.5 cubic feet of cargo and are commonly used in the returnable packaging industry. It can be installed or removed in less than three minutes for a speedy turnaround time.

Alternatively, customers can opt for the winch and crane, which uses a 65-foot cable line to lower items to the ground from altitude. The system can be controlled manually or automatically, but the drone releases cargo on its own when it touches the ground. This configuration could be used in locations where it’s unsafe to land, such as a wooded area.

Yet another fascinating feature is FlyCart 30’s intelligent “anti-sway” system. The advanced technology detects the drone’s weight and center of gravity while airborne, returning it to level flight whenever it sways or tilts.

For now, FlyCart 30 is available only in China for $17,000. The purchase price includes the aircraft, two batteries, a charging hub with cables, and an RC Plus remote controller. The controller displays DJI’s Pilot 2 program, which shows real-time flight status, delivery conditions, and the drone’s power level. It can even issue warnings and navigate the drone to a safe landing spot in the event of extreme weather or another emergency.

Simultaneously, the company launched DJI Transport, a cloud-based operations platform. With it, customers can plan equipment tasks, manage team resources, analyze flight and delivery data, and control the dynamics of the operation from top to bottom.

The Implications

Drone delivery remains a young industry that lacks a true juggernaut. Does DJI have what it takes to steal the crown?

As of February, the Chinese firm is responsible for about seven in 10 consumer drone sales globally. That makes it far and away the largest consumer drone provider in the world, a position it’s held since 2015. The company currently has more than 14,000 employees, dwarfing just about every competitor.

DJI’s first consumer drone, the Phantom 1, came out in 2013 after seven years of development. It didn’t sell well. But just two years later, the Phantom 3 added live stream capabilities and skyrocketed the company’s position. Around this time, CEO Frank Wang, who owns about 40 percent of the company, became the world’s first drone billionaire.

Now, DJI rakes in an estimated $2 billion in annual revenue. In other words, it has deep coffers to support its drone delivery efforts. Adding another business may also position the firm well for the future as it contends with a seemingly never-ending slew of bans and restrictions by U.S. lawmakers, who have derisively referred to the company as “TikTok with wings.”

DJI will likely sell drone delivery services primarily to enterprise customers. These figure to have stickier demand than the individual consumers who buy its camera drones, since enterprises are less prone to inflation and shifts in demand and will need the aircraft to do business. That should drive more revenue and shield it from macroeconomic downturns somewhat.

A company spokesperson told FLYING it’s “too early to tell” if DJI will deploy FlyCart 30 outside China. However, the company did hint that this is a possibility if regulatory and infrastructure frameworks allow it, and there are a few things working in its favor to soak up global demand.

For one, it has an expansive, international network of dealers and customers. Many prospective customers will have already been trained on other DJI systems and products, giving them a level of familiarity that could give DJI a leg up. Some companies and nongovernmental organizations are already using DJI gear to map and survey areas of interest or create images for marketing purposes.

A potential concern, though, is the drone’s size and weight. With both batteries and an empty payload, FlyCart 30 weighs 143 pounds, far exceeding the limit of the FAA’s small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) rule. To fly in the U.S., DJI would need to obtain a type certification or an exemption to Section 44807 of Title 49 of the U.S. Code. The European Union and New Zealand, two other emerging drone delivery markets, have similar rules.

FlyCart 30 measures about nine by 10 by three feet, a size typically reserved for long-distance models. However, its 10 sm range and 18-minute flight time will likely limit the model to last-mile delivery. For comparison, flagship last-mile drones from Wing and Matternet fly about 12 miles, Amazon Prime Air’s flies 9 miles, and A2Z Drone Delivery’s new RDST Longtail travels close to 7 miles.

All of these designs have significantly lighter payloads than DJI’s. That begs the question: What kind of cargo will FlyCart 30 carry? It’s likely too bulky for food or grocery deliveries, which is how the above companies make their money. According to DJI, emergency transport will be a core use case. But outside China it would have to compete with Zipline, whose drone can fly 190 miles on a single charge. FlyCart 30’s range will likely cap its usefulness for medical deliveries.

Besides Wing, Matternet, Amazon, and A2Z, DJI would jostle against Walmart and DroneUp and UPS Flight Forward in the U.S. It would likely compete with Volocopter in Europe and Africa, or with SkyDrop in New Zealand.

In China, DJI’s main competitor will be on-demand shopping platform Meituan, which last year made 100,000 drone deliveries in Shenzhen. EHang, a passenger electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft developer, also operates a drone delivery service in the country with DHL.

The company will likely spend the next few months or years feeling out the competition among these firms before attempting to launch in the U.S. or elsewhere. But if (or when) it does, it would have a massive potential market to work with.

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Jack is a staff writer covering advanced air mobility, including everything from drones to unmanned aircraft systems to space travel—and a whole lot more. He spent close to two years reporting on drone delivery for FreightWaves, covering the biggest news and developments in the space and connecting with industry executives and experts. Jack is also a basketball aficionado, a frequent traveler and a lover of all things logistics.

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