These Are Not Your Drones

This piece was originally published in the American Mind.

A growing concern in debates over U.S.-China competition and decoupling has been the U.S. usage of Chinese drones. Drones made in China by Chinese companies have been used by federal agencies for tasks ranging from fighting fires to agricultural research and by the FBI and Secret Service for security purposes. As a fiery congressional hearing last summer illustrated, lawmakers are finally beginning to question the wisdom of using Chinese drones.

To understand why these drones are so controversial, we need to understand how one company, DJI, became the largest drone manufacturer in the world and the strategies it took to get there.

Founded in 2006, DJI rose to moderate prominence through its production of drone components and eventually complete drones, but it was only with the support of American venture capital that it soared to unicorn status. A $30 million funding round by Sequoia China in 2014, followed by a $75 million round led by Accel Partners in 2015, led to a valuation of more than $10 billion in 2015. Coverage of these deals in the American press was positive at the time; the Financial Times, for example, compared DJI to Apple. And DJI had the revenue to back up the hype: DJI’s revenue increased 100-fold from 2011 to 2015. In 2021, the company captured 54% of the commercial drone market share by revenue.

Continue reading in the American Mind.

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