made in the USA DJI drone

Public safety professionals want to buy U.S.-made drones, so why aren’t they?

Buy American? Most public safety professionals want to buy drones that are made in the USA, but they’re not buying U.S.-made drones.

Most drones currently being used by American public safety officials were made in China by, no surprise, DJI. But if those public safety officials could buy an equivalent-quality drone from an American company, they would (or at least they say).

The Fall 2019 Public Safety UAS Survey by Droneresponders, a non-profit organization focusing on drones for public safety, presented 224 respondents with a scenario. They offered them four drones possessing nearly identical quality, capabilities, and price points. One drone was from a Chinese-headquartered company, one drone was from a French-headquartered company, one drone was from a German-headquartered company, and one drone was from a U.S.-headquartered company.

A whopping 88%, (196 of the 224 respondents) said they would purchase the drone from the U.S.-headquartered company.

Whether it’s a general ‘buy American‘ sentiment or whether it’s founded on concerns over some Chinese drone companies not securing data, people say they want their drones made in the USA.

made in the USA DJI drone
A DJI Phantom drone, made in China

But here’s the thing: most U.S. drone companies, particularly hardware companies, have largely failed, leaving businesses that use drones with few options. 3D Robotics was once a media darling, but burned through $100 million in funding before shutting down their manufacturing operations and pivoting to drones as a service. Another exceedingly well-funded company, Airware, started as a drone manufacturer before pivoting to software. Even that wasn’t enough, as its last legs were acquired for an undisclosed (but likely relatively small) sum of money by French company Delair.

“Even powerhouse technology company Intel attempted to compete against DJI, but could not find success in a market where DJI could flood the shelves with low-cost, good-quality drones that were relatively reliable and easy to use right out of the box,” according to a September 2019 Droneresponders white paper.

U.S. aerospace and defense stalwarts such as AeroVironment, Boeing, Lockheed Martin have tapped into drones, but their price point is too high for most enterprise drone operations.

“This would have likely meant increasing their cost of sales while simultaneously lowering their prices (and thus their margins) from their existing lucrative defense contracts in an attempt to pursue and accommodate the modest budgets of most public safety agencies,” the Droneresponders report stated. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen.”

According to the 2019 Fall Public Safety UAS Survey from Droneresponders, the drones used by public enforcement agencies are overwhelmingly made in China, with most made by DJI. 73% of public safety agencies that responded said they use a DJI Mavic drone. 47% of respondents reported using a DJI Matrice series, 46% the DJI Phantom series, and 37% the DJI Inspire series (respondents could answer multiple times if their departments had multiple drones).

And alas, 55% of survey respondents said they already have plans to buy at least one more drone in 2020…from Chinese drone company DJI.

4 Comments

  • CantYouSee says:

    Generally, public officials have little time to research products, do comparisons, etc.
    Unfortunately, DJI got their foot in the door with a package that just works and provided good customer service.
    Plus, there was/is a lot of anecdotal evidence from early adopters.
    They married up their product with some prevalent software platforms that agencies were already familiar with and compared to the competition, their cost per/minute of flight time was much better.
    Then there are the cheerleaders for certain companies, who don’t necessarily concern themselves with certain aspects of a product line or where the products come from, or what harms could come of their use. Flooding the web with lots of articles lavishing praise on a company, irrespective of the potential harms, providing others who aren’t necessarily security conscious, let alone savvy, with a sourced ‘win’ for a product to purchase.
    Finally, once a purchase is made in the public sector, and the thing works, it becomes the path of least resistance…except now it’s finally realized as the problem and risk that it always was.

  • John Sheehan says:

    “This would have likely meant increasing their cost of sales while simultaneously lowering their prices (and thus their margins) from their existing lucrative defense contracts in an attempt to pursue and accommodate the modest budgets of most public safety agencies …That clearly wasn’t going to happen.”

    Boeing and Lockheed could easily bring drones to the public safety, infrastructure and commercial development market …and would in a heartbeat if there were a legitimate concerns over metadata sharing with China. Indeed, they already serve needs of our military industrial complex in those capacities.

    They simply aren’t supporting private sector drone fleet operations such as what Amazon has in mind for consumer goods delivery network operations or utility companies envision for BLOS continuous inspections. It is obviously a cost/benefit analysis since they could easily afford to offer UAVs to public safety stakeholders as a loss-leader in order to capture market share

  • ParrotFlyer says:

    Many of DJI’s competitors seemed to be one step behind in technology. In addition, DJI was often less expensive and had extended insurance/warranty coverage to protect new pilots. Lately, new US based companies seem to be challenging DJI’s front runner status. Skydio with the RS2 (based on early reviews) seems have found a very competitive Drone that will probably give them a run for the money. Impossible Aerospace’s US-1, while a bit expensive, provides flight times that are very impressive and I can’t image Police and Fire departments not giving that aircraft a long look.
    Tariffs, and DJI spreading into other markets outside of Drones could cause a more even market over the 5 years.

  • DroneZon says:

    You are absolutely correct. Many of the manufacturers only supply fixed wing drones which don’t suit a lot of missions. You just can’t beat having a quality quadcopter and that is what the Chinese manufacturers do very well. DJI are still the leaders and one thing about DJI is that they really know and understand marketing and promotion. Their new product launches are a bit like Apple launches a few years back. People just can’t wait to see what is going to be released and they are always a bit ahead with some new innovation. But maybe the American made Skydio 2 drone will make an impact.

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