About 100 feet away, a co-worker did the same from the ground, occasionally climbing onto a blue truck. By noon they’d covered the same stretch of field it would have taken four or five workers a week to spray with traditional crank-operated backpack dispensers.
This is a typical day for Hainan China Agriculture and Flight Service, a year-old company with about 50 employees that’s sprung up to fill a niche. “It’s harder to find people to spray pesticides in the old way,” says Zhang Yourong, the farmer who manages these cornfields. “Young people want to leave the farms and find better jobs in cities now.” Yang’s boss, former realtor Liang Lvsheng, says he’s also interested in using drones to map farms from the sky, a way to spot pests or other problems more quickly.
Zoom out a little more, and a broader business plan starts to come into focus. Drones are becoming less of a casual hobby and more like commercial and industrial equipment, and DJI, the world’s leading maker of the little buggers, is working a lot harder to make sure it can meet the market’s changing wishes. DJI makes the Agras-MG1 drones spraying the fields on Hainan, Matrice 200 drones for industrial surveying, and Inspire drones for high-end filmmaking, and it’s got 25 percent of its 8,000 staffers working on research and development and engineering to make sure potential rivals don’t spot an area it’s missed.
“Our iteration cycle is about six months,” says Paul Pan, senior product manager at DJI. “We can completely control the supply chain. We have our own factories and can do our own prototyping.”
Eleven-year-old DJI more or less invented the modern civilian drone industry when it introduced its first Phantom in 2012. Valued at $10bn, the Chinese company makes 60 percent to 65 percent of all nonmilitary drones shipped around the world, according to researcher Frost & Sullivan. It’s maintained its lead partly through smart branding and partnerships, getting photography-focused Phantom models into more than 400 Apple Stores.
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