Here’s a training for students of promoting. You are required to devise a technique to make model aeroplanes sexy. You must also demonstrate building a global, multibillion-dollar business selling them. Not easy, can it be? Making various other suburban pursuit fashionable — perhaps caravanning — may very well be less challenging.
There’s another minor obstacle to creating remote-controlled aircraft rock; you will need to reimagine model aeroplanes as sleek consumer products, despite their having lately been rebranded as “drones” and accordingly feared by lots of people as instruments of death.
All this renders the achievement in the Chinese drone company DJI more remarkable. Founded in 2006 using a mainland Chinese electrical engineering student, Frank Wang, within his Hong Kong university dorm room, DJI’s first fly-out-the box Phantom consumer drone appeared lower than three years ago. Today, DJI is an international company that has a valuation of $8bn-$10bn and over 4,000 employees in China, the US, Japan, the Netherlands and Germany.
The DJI Phantom would have been a revelation, particularly to childhood constructors just like me of made-in-Essex Keil Kraft balsa wood models while using uncanny knack of never flying properly, or, indeed, flying in any way. When the £1,000 Phantom arrived, it was possible for many years to buy a drone, but only for £20,000 possibly even, with considerable flying skill needed.
Mr Wang’s invention, to amass, would be a breeze to fly, and tough to lose or crash. The Phantom wafted around through your control, spookily stable and streaming video on your iPhone. If you all messed up, it automatically returned to you safely. The stabilisation was Mr Wang’s secret sauce, turning a product for skilled geeks right into a mass-market phenomenon.
The 1.2kg machine fascinated me, and not simply because from the sheer, existential joy of piloting it as well as the astonishing footage it captured. It was the initial ever desirable Chinese technology product. Not one from the first. The first. Trust me, I’d looking on in China for something truly drool-worthy and Chinese since I’d started visiting eight years earlier.
With DJI, there seemed to be no sketchy, half-baked early version, no unintentionally funny instructions. From the off everything was near perfect, in the design and manufacturing towards the packaging on the website.
Indeed, the complete presentation am flawless that until I had breakfast by incorporating DJI executives in Hong Kong recently, I imagined that DJI am slick it needed to be an ABC — American Born Chinese — entity. Not so. The company and also the products are wholly Chinese Chinese — a point of pride to Xi Jinping’s tech innovation-minded government, I was told, while Mr Wang is apparently determined to never allow its products to be played with for military or state security purposes.
The impact of off-the shelf commercial drones — which is to a significant extent to Mr Wang — hasn’t only been exceptionally speedy, but has proved a paradigm of human inventiveness.
Since the Phantom shot to popularity in 2013, drones happen to be used or proposed for: delivering goods to consumers within a half-hour of ordering; delivering mail from the Australian outback; taking paparazzi photos; seeking missing people; getting aerial news footage; getting medicines to isolated African villages; staging political protest; planting forests in inhospitable terrain; infiltrating contraband into prisons; spraying crops; exercising dogs; being lookouts for criminals; dispersing chemical agents for terrorists; hunting in warehouses for bar coded packages.
This is the start. I have heard serious voices suggesting that eventually drones will live autonomously, avoiding all obstacles using ultrasonic sensors, repairing 1 another, reproducing, and standing in teams, migrating like birds to where they may be most needed.
Too science fiction-ish, maybe, for any pragmatic Chinese business. But DJI is hardly standing still. The most exciting idea I heard in Hong Kong was that one could soon be flying your drone while streaming 4K video to your virtual reality headset, and so the on-board camera swivels in precise accordance with the head movements — turning you, effectively, in a seagull.
Oh, and we’re talking the coming year, here, not next decade. As this day of continuous technological revolution keeps showing, innovation could be scarily fast — and never infrequently life-enhancing.
I, first, can’t wait becoming a seagull.