Why doesn’t DJI have a fixed-wing VTOL drone?

There’s no question that DJI holds the lion’s share of the drone market. There’s also no question that its products are really well-built and have a ton of top-notch engineering packed in. But we’ve got this nagging question: Why are all of its drone products based on the standard multi-rotor design?

It’s kind of funny. We’ve been kicking around this idea for a post for a few weeks. And then, yesterday, a paramedic who uses drones in his work (and is very skilled with them), raised the same question. In a DM, he wrote: “I do wish DJI would release a fixed-wing.”

And that was the nudge we needed.

Quadcopter heritage

There can be no question that DJI is the pioneer that truly created the consumer drone industry. We remember watching early YouTube videos of flight controller and GPS unit tests and being astounded by watching engineers give hovering drones a shove, only for the machines to return to their original spot in a rock-steady hover. Products like the Flamewheel kit, followed by the Phantom, truly opened up the industry. Trust us, there was a time when this was state of the art:

We nearly bought one of these back in the day…

Paving the way…

We acknowledged the tremendous impact DJI has had on this industry with a 2,100+ word piece on how DJI’s drones have been the bedrock for the quadcopter industry. If you’re in the mood for a longer read, you can find that article here.

There’s no question, DJI’s products have come a long way since those early days. The company also created an Enterprise division, with drones more suitable to a wide range of industrial, first responder, and agricultural uses. It has a broad range of Enterprise products that are widely used by industrial enterprises, first responders, and more.

But there’s one thing that’s been missing: a fixed-wing, vertical takeoff and landing vehicle.

Why fixed wing?

Well, you can make arguments for and against. On the pro side, fixed-wing designs are more efficient in flight. The airfoil, when in forward flight, provides lift. That means you can fly longer distances and, generally, at faster speeds than a standard quadcopter or variation thereof. Given that beyond visual line of sight flights will one day become routine once the whole Unmanned Traffic Management system is figured out, it seems that fixed-wing VTOLS will be the vehicles of choice for many applications.

Want to monitor an oil pipeline or other long-range infrastructure asset? Fixed-wing is probably the way to go, based on range alone. Need to map a really large area? Fixed-wing. And yet… there is no fixed-wing VTOL, at least yet, from DJI.

The paramedic

Remember how we said we got a nudge from a contact? His name is Scott McLeod. He’s a Canadian paramedic and firefighter based in the Ottawa area. He uses drones in his work and has also been involved in innovative trials, such as testing the delivery of automated external defibrillators by drone (we met during one of those trials). Here’s why he thinks a fixed-wing VTOL would be advantageous:

Despite the advantages presented by multirotors for first responders, the limitations brought by current power density issues mean that flight duration can hamper response capability, especially in extended operations or search situations.

He goes on:

Tilt-rotor or Fixed wing VTOL provide the best of both worlds, allowing better mission flexibility. While the aircraft are physically larger, flight times, range and speed are increased. Depending on design, there is also potential for more critical system redundancy for safety. (Being able to fly in fixed wing mode with fewer than all motors, or retaining control surfaces if thrust systems fail, etc…)

Makes sense. Which leads to the question:

Why not?

We’ve spoken with industry sources about this, and word is that DJI actually was considering this concept a few years back. In fact, it’s believed the company’s flight controllers have the capacity to control a fixed-wing aircraft, including the transition between vertical and horizontal flight. We’re also seeing a growing number of fixed-wing VTOL drones in the marketplace that are highly suitable for certain applications.

The Quantum-Systems Vector is an open-source, fixed-wing VTOL… (Auterion photo)

DJI, we were told about a year ago, had some 14,000 employees at the time. It’s believed well over half of those employees are engineers. Think about that for a second: Thousands of highly skilled engineers at your disposal. Why not grab a big handful of them and assign them to build a fixed-wing VTOL?

It did

We’ve spoken to a few sources outside of DJI, and it seems the company did do some experimentation with a fixed-wing VTOL – up to the point of producing and testing a prototype. It was based on a modular payload design, which makes perfect sense for this kind of work. There was, in fact, a version being pulled together and tested in 2017 that was a 4 + 1 configuration, meaning four motors for lift and, in this case, a single pusher prop for forward thrust. In early 2018, this photo surfaced online, allegedly showing the prototype:

Was this a DJI prototype? Maybe not…

Soon after that image appeared (and it was published at the time on this website), DJI stated it was not a DJI product:

The drone you feature is not an official DJI product, but appears to have been custom-built by a third party using DJI components. Our flight control and communication systems are widely acknowledged to be the best in the business, and we are pleased that drone innovators rely on our components to develop new and exciting product ideas.

Arguably, depending on how you want to parse the wording above, this could indeed have been an unofficial DJI product. Two other images floating around at the time place it in a location with other DJI products in the background: You can clearly see their first version of DJI’s Goggles in the background, along with a Mavic Pro. The second photo shows the iconic Phantom legs near the top right.

But it doesn’t really matter that much whether this was the actual bird or not. We can report there was, indeed, a prototype built for a fixed-wing VTOL somewhere inside DJI. That’s a fact.

It didn’t go anywhere

We’re told the prototype also had some issues, including wings that weren’t optimally designed. But there was another, much bigger issue, at least in the company’s mind: Back then, beyond visual line of sight flights were very uncommon.

So the project was shelved.

The market

But still… why not diversify?

Part of the answer likely lies in DJI’s model: Everything it does, everything it makes, is at scale. When DJI conceives, develops, and manufactures a product, it does so with projections it will sell a ton of them (and, though we’re not privy to numbers, it likely does). And certainly back in 2018, the demand likely was not there for DJI to justify launching a fixed-wing model.

We contacted David Benowitz of DroneAnalyst for his take. He says even now, demand in the fixed-wing VTOL market might not be a fit for DJI’s overall strategy and business model:

While BVLOS and larger airframes to accommodate are a rising trend in the industry, they aren’t a clear win for a company like DJI. DJI has taken a leadership position by manufacturing standardized products at scale. The market for BVLOS drones today just isn’t big enough to fit their manufacturing model while they try to ramp up production of other nascent business units such as LIDAR sensors and automotive components.

In fact, he says data gathered by DroneAnalyst on Parrot (which owns senseFly, which makes the eBee fixed-wing mapping and survey drone), indicates sales are relatively stagnant. Check out the gray segments in this bar graph:

It’s worth noting here that the eBee is purely a fixed-wing and not a VTOL hybrid. But it is an indicator, nonetheless, that the fixed-wing market might not yet be ready for prime-time.

Resources

There’s no question, relative to any other drone manufacturer, that DJI has the resources to grab several hundred engineers and simply assign them to the task of developing such a product. And Romeo Durscher, vice president of public safety at Auterion, says DJI could indeed easily do that.

He should know; Durscher spent six years in high-profile positions at DJI, with his final title as
senior director of Public Safety Integration. He was closely involved with the development of some of DJI’s Enterprise products, with a special interest in features and capabilities that would be useful to first responders.

“DJI has a large and very talented team of software and hardware engineers,” says Durscher. “It’s in the numbers. When you can dedicate a couple hundred people to a problem, you can achieve a great outcome in a very short amount of time. And DJI also has the production/manufacturing capabilities, which is an important benefit as well.”

Bumps in the road

Though still the undisputed market leader, DJI has lost some of its sheen with its placement on the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List – allegedly for human rights abuses (although the nature of those alleged abuses was never clearly defined). There has also been an “America First” push in the US, and we’ve certainly seen this in the drone world.

Its decision earlier this year to directly sell Enterprise products to customers – rather than through its established distribution network (much like Apple both sells directly but also has authorized dealers) has prompted some Enterprise dealers to diversify their product lines. Many of these Enterprise dealers also offer fixed-wing VTOL aircraft.

Internal shakeups

There has also been internal restructuring over the past year, with some employees being shown the exit and others choosing to leave.

“All of that has led DJI to lose tremendously important employees, people with knowledge and understanding of the needs of end-users,” says Durscher.

“And that is ultimately hurting DJI. Just building a drone and pushing it into the market is not enough for Enterprise. It’s about understanding the needs of the various verticals and use-cases, and building a well-integrated solution. That’s their biggest downfall now.”

Nonetheless…

Despite losing some market share in recent years, there’s no question DJI remains the undisputed leader of the global drone scene. But there’s also no question that Enterprise clients have an ever-expanding palette of drones to choose from, including fixed-wing VTOLS.

Yes, there are still some hurdles to overcome with unmanned traffic management (UTM) to ensure that crewed and uncrewed aircraft can safely share the same airspace with minimal risk. But, at least in North America, FAA waivers and Special Flight Operation Certificates in Canada for BVLOS flights are becoming more and more routine. As the skies continue opening for longer UAS missions, so too will demand for fixed-wing VTOLS capable of long-range missions.

Will DJI pursue this avenue again? We suspect so, if such developments are not already underway. When it gets there, we have no doubt the products will be very good. But so are some of the other offerings already on the market. And that, ultimately, means more choices for the purchaser. Says Durscher:

Other companies are bringing very solid Enterprise visions and solutions to the market. (These are) Exciting times for end-users; they are getting more choices and more flexibility – just what is needed. No one company can do it alone; a true ecosystem approach is the only way to success.

DroneDJ‘s take

Competition is good. It leads to a broader selection of products and features, more competitive pricing, and out-of-the-box thinking.

And while we can’t predict future demand for fixed-wing VTOLs, we can say with confidence it will grow. New products from new companies in this sector are being released at an accelerated pace. And once the skies open to routine BVLOS flights, that pace will only quicken.

Those currently in the fixed-wing VTOL space now arguably have an advantage: Their products are becoming known by potential clients – and also by the regulators who grant BVLOS waivers. More than that, they simply have an offering available in this space available to those who want one (and not all fixed-wing VTOL missions have to be BVLOS).

Will DJI enter this part of the sector? In our view, it’s only a matter of time. And when that time comes, you can bet DJI will dedicate whatever resources it takes.

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