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The company responsible for an estimated seven out of every 10 consumer drone sales worldwide is throwing its hat in the drone delivery ring.

China’s DJI, the market leader in consumer drones since 2015, this week announced that its recently unveiled FlyCart 30 model is now available globally. The company kicked off sales in China in August. But the international expansion marks its true entry into the drone delivery space.

Prior to last year, DJI made drones almost exclusively for hobbyists or industrial customers. Most of these are camera drones, equipped with features such as high-definition lenses and video recorders. Others are designed for surveillance and inspection, with thermal or infrared sensors, mapping software and advanced communications systems.

Despite the Chinese government’s alleged involvement in DJI, the company’s ascent has largely been organic, fueled by its reputation for low-cost, high-quality products. Its drones have been used to film high-profile TV shows such as “Game of Thrones,” “The Amazing Race,” “Better Call Saul” and “American Ninja Warrior,” and have developed a following among American users. They’ve also been discovered on the battlefield in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, often in modified forms.

DJI’s presence in the U.S. has drawn the ire of lawmakers, who have decried the company’s products as “TikTok with wings” and leveled accusations of spying, without concrete evidence. Bans at the federal and state levels have taken aim at it and other Chinese manufacturers. In December, lawmakers successfully included sweeping restrictions in the recently passed defense policy bill.

However, with the exception of a few states, the restrictions only hamper DJI at the federal level. American companies will still be able to purchase the buzzing aircraft, though the manufacturer will compete for business with established U.S. players such as Zipline and Google parent Alphabet’s Wing.

The specs

DJI says FlyCart 30 can be deployed for a variety of use cases: last-mile delivery, mountain or offshore transportation, emergency rescue, agriculture, construction, surveying, and more. This week’s announcement did not list a price tag, but the model is on sale in China for $17,000.

FlyCart 30 is a multirotor design featuring eight blades connected by four shared axes. Carbon fiber propellers, powered by a pair of built-in-house batteries, provide lift. Measuring 9-by-10-by-3 feet, the model enters the market as one of the largest short-range delivery drones.

Despite its size, the drone tops out at about 45 mph (39 knots). With both batteries installed, it can carry a 66-pound payload over a distance of about 8.6 nautical miles, remaining airborne for only 18 minutes. In emergency single-battery mode, the payload rises to 88 pounds but range is cut in half.

However, FlyCart 30 is more durable than the average delivery drone. It has an IP55 rating, meaning it protects against dust and moderate rain, and can fly in winds as fast as 27 mph. The drone can also operate in temperatures as high as 122 degrees or as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit — its batteries heat themselves, maintaining performance even in the freezing cold.

In addition, the drone’s propellers are optimized to fly at up to 19,600 feet above ground level, or up to 9,800 above ground level with a 66-pound payload — far higher than the 400-foot altitude occupied by most delivery drones today. This will allow FlyCart 30 to serve China’s mountainous landscape and hard-to-reach locations in other countries.

For beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) flights, FlyCart 30 can communicate with a remote controller as far as 12 miles away. But its unique Dual Operator mode extends that range by allowing pilots to transfer control of the drone with the push of a button.

During flight, a suite of sensors and visual systems can detect obstacles in multiple directions, in all weather conditions, day or night. A built-in ADS-B receiver alerts crewed aircraft of the drone’s approach. And in emergencies, an integrated parachute can deploy at low altitude for a soft landing — or the drone can automatically pick an alternate landing site.

FlyCart 30 comes in two configurations, both of which can fold down for transport in a “standard-sized vehicle.” In cargo mode, payloads are placed in a 70-liter case built from material commonly found in the reusable packaging industry. Capable of being installed or removed in under three minutes, the case includes weight and center-of-gravity sensors to prevent swaying in the air.

Customers can also opt for winch mode, which is ideal for deliveries to inconvenient landing sites. A winch crane can carry up to 88 pounds of cargo, releasing it automatically at the delivery location on a 65-foot cable. Augmented reality projection is used to guide the cable to the landing point.

A FlyCart 30 purchase comes with the aircraft, batteries, charging hub with cables, and DJI’s RC Plus remote controller. In addition, FlyCart can be linked with the company’s DeliveryHub software, which provides operation planning, status monitoring, team resource management, and data collection and analysis.

Viewable on the RC controller is Pilot 2, another software that displays real time information on flight status, cargo status, battery power level and more. Pilot 2 also alerts operators of potential risks along the flight path and generates alternate landing points in case of extreme weather or other abnormal conditions. From the controller, users can even view flights live through the drone’s first-person-view gimbal camera.

The outlook

DJI has held the pole position in consumer drones for nearly a decade. The company could continue to bring in billions of dollars in annual revenue by specializing in that area. But the launch of drone delivery signals the firm’s ambitions run deeper.

Rather than selling exclusively to individual hobbyists, DJI can now reach enterprise customers such as retailers or medical organizations. That segment is less susceptible to macroeconomic swings and could help the company stabilize revenue. Skydio, the largest consumer drone company in the U.S., recently shuttered its consumer business entirely, electing instead to pursue enterprise customers.

Working in DJI’s favor is its already established international network of dealers and customers. The firm has become a trusted brand in the consumer drone space, and many companies and organizations — which could become drone delivery customers — are already familiar with DJI systems and interfaces. Some of them already use the company’s other drones.

A potential concern, however, is FlyCart 30’s niche. The drone doesn’t fit neatly into a single category: Its limited range and flight time suggest it will home in on the last mile, but its size and weight make it better suited to deliver heavy cargo rather than food and groceries. Medical payloads could be a good fit (DJI has said as much), but the company would need to compete with Zipline, whose drones can fly 190 miles on a single charge. As of January, Zipline has completed nearly 900,000 deliveries worldwide.

In addition, FlyCart 30’s 143-pound empty weight with both batteries installed would exceed the FAA’s limits for small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS). To fly in the U.S., DJI would require type certification or an exemption to Section 44807 of Title 49 of the U.S. Code. The European Union and New Zealand, two other emerging drone delivery markets, have similar rules.

DJI may be able to overcome those restrictions in other foreign countries, but breaking into the U.S. market could be challenging. For years, American lawmakers have targeted it and other Chinese manufacturers with bans, though these only restrict the technology at the federal level. However, a few states have already shown willingness to pass their own bans.

Further, U.S. lawmakers are pushing legislation that would extend DJI bans to the consumer level, restricting hobbyists and potentially even businesses from flying the drones. But DJI has made one thing very clear: Global scale, not regional, is the objective.

The post China’s DJI, facing US bans, launches global sales of delivery drone appeared first on FreightWaves.

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