By Ryan Mac, Heng Shao and Frank Bi
Frank Wang Tao has never been arrested. He pays his taxes on time. And he rarely drinks. But on the eve of a January sit-down with FORBES–his first public interview this year with a Western publication–the Chinese national who happens to be the world’s first drone billionaire found himself on the wrong end of American authorities.
A U.S. government intelligence employee in Washington, D.C., some 8,000 miles away from Wang’s perch in Shenzhen, had had a little too much to drink and took a friend’s four-propeller drone out for a spin in the wee hours. Inexperienced, he lost the aircraft in the dark and, after a brief search, called off his drunken hunt. By dawn that 1-foot-by-1-foot whirlybird was a global news story and subject of a Secret Service investigation–after crash-landing on the White House lawn.
Wang built that robot. He also created the one that a protester used last month to land a bottle of radioactive waste on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office and developed the one a smuggler used to sneak drugs, a mobile phone and weapons into a prison courtyard outside of London in March. The idea of people using your product to break laws and social boundaries would give most CEOs nightmares, but the inconspicuous mastermind behind the world’s drone revolution just shakes it off.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” shrugs the 34-year-old founder of Dajiang Innovation Technology Co. (DJI), which accounts for 70% of the consumer drone market, according to Frost & Sullivan. His company spent the morning developing a software update it blasted out to all its drones, prohibiting them from flying inside a 15.5-mile-radius centered on downtown Washington, D.C. “It’s a benign thing.”
Or maybe it only looks that way to Wang because success has inured him to controversy. Last year DJI sold about 400,000 units–many of which were its signature Phantom model–and is on track to do more than $1 billion in sales this year, up from $500 million in 2014. Sources close to the company say DJI netted about $120 million in profit. Sales have either tripled or quadrupled every year between 2009 to 2014, and investors are betting that Wang can maintain that dominant position for years to come. In April the company closed a round of funding at a $10 billion valuation. Wang, who owns about 45%, is now worth more than $4.5 billion. DJI’s chairman and two early employees are also billionaires from the deal. “DJI started the hobby unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] market, and now everybody is trying to catch up,” says Frost & Sullivan analyst Michael Blades.