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.

12 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.

  • Jim Mitchell says:

    I am a Nevada film producer and I make every possible effort to buy American products. It’s a tough leap to go from a well-made six-blade Yuneec system (Chinese) for $4200 to a six-blade Vision Aerial Vector System for $17,000 plus another $2000 for a camera gimbal. I can swallow and pay 100% more but not 400% more. And that’s the problem. Drones are either well-made toys like a DJI or they are enormously high-end systems. Nothing is in the middle. I can’t stomach the thought of buying a DJI anything. Our own American dollars have made China a powerful communist tyrant and a increasingly formidable military foe – and it has all been done willingly out of our own stupidity and ignorance as a nation. Try to buy any hardware commodity not made in China. It’s tough. America invented video, cameras, recorders and monitors. Today, you cannot buy an American made consumer camera, recorder or monitor. Same with hammers, drills and ball caps with bills. Shameful.

  • O.D. Smith says:

    I will agree with buying USA as much as possible, I have to much military in me to do any other way. I look at every thing I buy to see where it was made. I will agree with the other comments that are made concerning you cannot buy but few things made in the US? We are selling out to mostly CHINA, one day we will wake up? Sure it cost a few dollars more to buy US but it is worth it.

  • I check every item I purchase and try to only buy products made in the USA. If I can’t find a USA product, I will travel to another store. We’ve passed our own wealth to China and made China great at our own expense. Now, it is time to pull back hard on the reins. Support fellow US citizens by only buying product made in the USA – not made in America which could be south America, Latin America, Mexico or Canada.

  • Robert Allan says:

    Worked several years for a US drone manufacturer. If I had a dollar for every company/government agency who mentioned a desire to purchase American products, we likely would still be in business! Our birds were priced competitively with the DJI hex/ octocopter, targeting customers who needed the capability to swap out heavier payloads on longer missions. Challenges included decision makers who underestimated the total cost of ownership (cases, extra batteries, back up drone, training & transportation) as well as the willingness to circumvent those Buy America purchasing requirements. As others have stated it’s hard to beat the low price tag, and simplicity of the Phantom/Magic/Inspire trio!

  • But Robert, one day when China wants more than just the far-away Spratly Islands in the south China sea and our children look up and see Red Chinese fighter jets that look like F-35’s coming in for bombing runs over their heads, I wonder if they will say, “it’s hard to beat the low price tag, and simplicity of the Phantom/Magic/Inspire trio!”

  • Gladdrone.uk says:

    I am in the UK and a dim drone operator, I fully understand the security issue but cost is a big factor and we don’t make drones, so I ask can we not find away to de-program them and use a native program to block all of Chinese ability to gather data.
    Make it a condition of import that they come Brian dead.
    Just an idea.

    • Kevin says:

      You win, This is the most reasonable common-sense approach to a problem that I saw in this entire thread. The hardware is there, reprogram software. And the problem is solved. Thinking about it, There could be a market here by the low price. Good quality DJI drones. Reprogram them and sell them aftermarket ,or sell an update software and eliminate the Chinese fraud of data theft. I’m just a woodworker. There is a way out of this problem.

  • That is a great idea and if this habit of not helping the Chinese caught on, they (DJI) might respond. Good idea. It should be a universal requirement for all drone manufacturers regardless of country. -jm

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