Kevin Mukai NV Drones
When DJI launched their Software Developer Kit late in 2014, a turnkey drone application was a novel concept (even more-so than it is today). The creation of an SDK for the world’s largest drone manufacturer made sense – drones, like mobile phones, are multi-faceted devices that can be used for many different applications. As such, DJI’s next logical step was to allow software developers to create various applications built on the DJI platform.
Given, there hasn’t been an explosion in the volume of drone apps being created like there was in the mobile space. By my count there’s 10 or less 3rd-Party DJI apps that are actually being used. The vast majority of this is due to Chris Anderson’s popularized phrase, “drones are hard.” Beyond making a technically-reliable app, software developers have to know the niche of drone pilots well enough that they can offer a product that will provide added value beyond DJI GO. In other words, you can’t just create a farting app for a drone and get thousands of downloads.
There are many, many reasons why DJI rose to prominence and continues to maintain 50-70% of the market (depending how you segment it). The underlying theme of all these reasons is that their products give off an aura that they “just work.” Everything from their flight controllers to their drones to their gimbals to their cameras – they just work. Yes, there are those who say otherwise, but from a 10,000 foot perspective DJI has been able to get their products to “just work” better than anyone else.
DJI’s SDK is no different and is truly unique in the drone market. DJI is the only company that has been able to even closely mimic the SDK/app store concept that was created by mobile phones. For a developer, the biggest appeal of developing on an iPhone or an Android phone is that I can get access to millions of users instantly through the push of a button. No other strings attached. That’s what DJI has been able to achieve with its SDK – a simple flow of developer app store customer no different than how I would download Snapchat.
Why is the SDK so important to DJI? It allows DJI to hit the commercial market – or whatever other market drones get into – without becoming obsolete. As competitors like Yuneec start to gain ground on technological and manufacturing fronts, those competitors still can’t match the flexibility DJI’s 3rd-party apps offer DJI users. With DJI, I have options. If I don’t like DJI GO (many don’t), I can fly with Autoflight Logic, who has dozens of different types of autonomous flight paths and other features DJI GO doesn’t have. If I want to create a map autonomously, I can download DroneDeploy and start making a map instantly. With Yuneec? If I don’t like their built-in Ground Control Station, I’m pretty much stuck. This is a big reason why you will be very hard to come by a commercial operator who doesn’t own at least 1 DJI drone in their fleet. Experienced operators have their hands in multiple industries and DJI’s drones best fit the bill.
I’m not saying that other drones can’t run different pieces of software. 3D-Robotics offers multiple Ground Control Stations through itself and the DIY community. Custom, professional rigs, can be tailored from both a hardware and software perspective to optimize itself for specific applications and use-cases. The key differentiation is in the simplicity of it. Do I need to do a lot of reading on how to install different software into different folder structures depending on different Operating Systems? Or, can I just go onto the app store and download it?
The big problem for competing manufacturers is that creating an SDK is only a small fraction of the solution. 3rd-party developers won’t put time into development unless they know people will use what they’re making (Just ask Microsoft about the Windows phone). Every developer looking to get into drones is looking at the DJI SDK primarily because of the size of DJI’s user-base. Unlike an SDK, this isn’t something that other companies can just re-create with an engineering team.
DJI gets a lot of credit for their marketing, manufacturing, and innovation abilities. They also get a lot of flak for being the “Apple” of drones due to their lack of customizability. But, credit should be given where it’s due. Even though DJI employs Apple-esque types of strategies, you can’t argue that their drones aren’t flexible machines. DJI won’t always have as dominant of a market share as they do now and we’re already starting to see competitors starting to make noise. Through its SDK, however, DJI has ensured that it will continue its dominance until further notice.