By Brad Stone
Earlier this year, Brian Tercero, a real estate agent in Santa Fe, N.M., purchased the Phantom 2, a small drone with four propellers that he equipped with a high-resolution camera. He started flying it over his properties and within two weeks had used the photos and video it shot to sell a ranch that had been on the market for three years. “It gives people a visual of something that they can’t picture in their heads and allows us to showcase the property from a different angle,” Tercero says. Drones will soon be as important for brokers as classified listings and cookies in the foyer, he says. “I believe within five years, sellers and buyers are going to demand this.”
Evangelists such as Tercero are propelling the Phantom’s maker, DJI Innovations, to an altitude rarely seen by Chinese technology startups. Founded in 2006 in China’s booming hardware hub, Shenzhen, DJI has grown from 50 employees to 1,500 in the past three years. It controls about half of what researcher Frost & Sullivan estimates is a $250 million to $300 million global market for small, unmanned aerial vehicles, outpacing rivals such as Parrot in France and Germany’s Microdrones. Silicon Valley venture capital firm Sequoia Capital is considering investing, though the financing isn’t final, according to a person familiar with the talks who wasn’t authorized to discuss them. Such a high-profile infusion of cash would likely put DJI at the center of an ongoing debate about drones, safety, and privacy. “The Phantom 2 Vision is the rough flying equivalent of the Apple II,” Sequoia partner and Chairman Michael Moritz wrote in a LinkedIn post in January.
DJI’s latest product, the Phantom 2 Vision+, comes with a two-joystick handheld controller that resembles a turbocharged video game accessory. A Wi-Fi transmitter on the controller lets owners connect their smartphone to the drone and watch video streamed live from its camera. Mounted on a three-axis gimbal, the 14-megapixel camera can be rotated by the pilot while the drone hovers in place.