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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

This Drone Maker Is Swooping In Amid US Pushback Against DJI

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These being pandemic times, a recent visit to the Silicon Valley offices of drone startup Skydio involved slipping past dumpsters into the deserted yard behind the company’s loading dock. Moments later, a black quadcopter eased out of the large open door, sounding like a large and determined wasp.

Skydio is best known for its “selfie drones,” which use onboard artificial intelligence to automatically follow and film a person, whether they’re running through a forest or backcountry skiing. The most recent model, released last fall, costs $999. The larger and more severe-looking machine that greeted WIRED has similar autonomous flying skills but aims to expand the startup’s technology beyond selfies into business and government work, including the military.

Skydio’s plans show how the conflict between the US and China over technology can create unexpected openings for American companies. Skydio’s work with the US government is being buoyed by growing opposition from government officials to its most powerful competitor and the world’s dominant drone maker, China’s DJI.

New regulations and proposed legislation restrict government agencies from buying foreign drones, claiming they are a potential conduit for cyberattacks. Skydio is happy to fill the void. “We feel a sense of opportunity, and responsibility,” says Adam Bry, Skydio’s CEO and a founder of Google’s drone delivery project. His company recently won a contract with the Drug Enforcement Agency and is vying to become the Army’s standard-issue short-range surveillance drone to help infantry peek over the next hill or look around corners in urban combat.

The government interest and protection come on the heels of a slump in the US drone industry. Investors hoping for sales in industries such as agriculture and energy plowed money into drone startups in the early 2010s as the Federal Aviation Administration gradually allowed broader use of the technology. Uptake was slower than anticipated, and drones turned out to be similar to other portable electronics—made more efficiently in China.

DJI’s market share soared while prominent US drone makers crashed. In 2016, 3D Robotics, which has raised more than $180 million, according to Pitchbook, and was cofounded by a former WIRED editor in chief, stopped manufacturing its own drones. It later started supplying software to run on DJI’s instead. In 2018, Airware, a San Francisco drone startup, which had raised more than $100 million in funding, shut down. Analytics company Drone Industry Insights says DJI’s products now account for 77 percent of drones in the US, citing FAA figures.

DJI has since gotten snared in growing US–China hostilities over technology. Late last year the Department of Justice recommended its agencies be wary of foreign drones. The Department of the Interior grounded its 800-strong drone fleet, which includes models DJI had customized for the agency, saying it was concerned Chinese drones or drone components were a security risk. The policies are widely seen as targeted at DJI.

Lawmakers have joined the action. In February, the House passed a bill that blocks the Department of Homeland Security and its agencies like FEMA and Customs and Border Protection from buying foreign drones. The Senate is considering a broader bill that would ban all US agencies from buying drones from any country recognized as a national security threat, such as China. “We need to be more strategic in protecting our national security interests and our competitive edge,” says Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R–Washington), who voted for the House bill and says she wants to see more support for US drone makers like Skydio. “Chinese drones like DJI’s can possibly send data back to China.”

A spokesperson for DJI said its products don’t send customer data to China and cited the results of a recent security audit by consultants Booz Allen Hamilton. It discovered some security vulnerabilities in DJI’s drones, which the company says it is addressing, but no evidence of connections to China. DJI argues that it would be better to require all drone vendors to meet defined security standards than to ban some companies based purely on their country of origin.

The Chinese company’s chances of escaping US government restrictions seem slim amid bipartisan support for legislation on foreign drones. Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says the US campaign against DJI resembles that against telecoms provider Huawei in its breadth and its influence on US allies in Europe.

Skydio’s willingness to capitalize on DJI’s troubles is a reminder that despite Silicon Valley’s perceived disdain of government and recent protests at some companies against defense contracts, the tech industry remains entangled with the US government and military. A database of tech industry government contracts released by the nonprofit Tech Inquiry last week shows Skydio has deals worth at least $7 million, including with the Air Force, Army, and DEA.

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Skydio was founded in 2014 and makes its drones near its offices in Redwood City, a short drone flight from Facebook’s home in Menlo Park. Bry says he chose to manufacture in Silicon Valley, one of the country’s most expensive locales, because making its drones smarter required tight integration between their hardware and onboard AI. That makes Skydio’s drones pricier—it’s first model released in 2018 was $2,499—but has more recently become important to government customers suspicious of China.

Other drone makers are working on autonomous flying too, including DJI, but Skydio has prioritized the technology, saying it’s needed for drones to become widely used. On its latest models, the onboard software uses video from six 4K navigation cameras, three on top and three underneath, and a powerful processor from chip company Nvidia to build a 3D model of the drone’s surroundings and avoid crashes.

Skydio’s software can also recognize that a person or people are in the frame and can follow one person in particular by tracking their shape and motion, not any identifying characteristics. One of Skydio’s consumer drones had no trouble zipping along behind a WIRED reporter jogging erratically around Skydio’s rear yard. The aerial gadget weaved easily around trees and other obstacles before landing smoothly in Bry’s outstretched hand.

More drones in the hands of businesses and government would be good for Skydio, but some people wonder if it would be bad for society.

Skydio drones with “POLICE” stickers are used by cops in Chula Vista, California, which last week won FAA approval to fly beyond an operator’s line of sight. Police drones were common at many recent protests in US cities against racist policing. Democratic state lawmakers in New York were spurred to introduce a bill to ban police drones at demonstrations and concerts and to require a warrant for any law enforcement use of the technology. The New York Civil Liberties Union has praised the legislation, saying that, like other surveillance technologies, they are most often directed at vulnerable communities and covertly expand government power.

Unsurprisingly, Bry is comfortable with police drones but says he recognizes such concerns. “The more we expand beyond consumers the more potential there is for really positive impact, but it comes with the potential for misuse and abuse,” he says. The company is working on a set of ethical principles for use of drones to be released this summer, he says, covering topics including privacy and community engagement.

Skydio is also creating applications that adapt its autonomous software for commercial use, which it believes will be a bigger market than government work. One is aimed at insurance workers inspecting buildings. A loss adjuster can use a mobile app to mark the area of a roof that needs inspecting, and the drone automatically flies a route that captures every square millimeter. FAA rules require an operator to watch and be ready to tap to end the flight, but Skydio says its software makes drones much more practical, because staff don’t need such extensive flying lessons.

That app will run on Skydio’s selfie drone launched last fall and also on the boxier, black business-and-government model that greeted WIRED and will be released later this year. It has a longer flight time, a thermal camera, and folds to about the size of an overstuffed foot-long sandwich. It comes in a version aimed at the defense industry, configured to meet Army specifications. Skydio is also working on a kind of robotic nest, or dock, that would allow its drones to be launched without a human on hand, for uses like capturing security footage or checking inventory in a warehouse at night.

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