China-Based Autel Is About to Give DJI a Run for Its Money

DJI, the world’s leading drone designer and manufacturer, with a monopoly on global sales, is beginning to face stiff competition from a number of upstart drone companies, including Autel Robotics, a rival China-based firm that is about to unveil a slew of new drone products that could give DJI – and everyone else – a run for their money.

Founded in 2014, the company is not actually an upstart, but it hasn’t been in the drone business all that long.  One of its co-founders is a former DJI executive and like DJI, the company does receive Chinese government funding, which has exposed it to the same unfounded – and widely criticized – accusation that it might pose a security threat to US interests.  In fact, Autel drones already account for about 7% of the UAV market with a strong presence in law enforcement and various commercial niches.  The company has offices in China, Singapore, Italy, Germany and in Seattle, Washington.  It’s an emerging powerhouse.

Autel has made clear that it intends to displace DJI’s prominent position in the U.S. and global drone market.  Its EVO mini-drone series is already immensely popular with drone hobbyists and its Dragonfish drone is widely used across industry.  Typically, Autel drones have an open architecture that allows users to fit various payloads to the platform and to hot-swap batteries without powering the aircraft down. Autel’s fixed-wing Dragonish can be equipped with advanced aerial surveillance cameras for everything from infrastructure inspections to coastal monitoring, emergency response and search-and rescue.  It can also be fitted with equipment to conduct firefighting operations.

A leak on Twitter last summer revealed Autel’s intent to introduce a new line of drones that will compete even more specifically with DJI drones currently on the market.  Two of these are the new Autel Alpha and Autel Titan prototypes.  The Alpha is a lightweight fixed-wing drone with a wingspan of about 12 feet that can fly at 45 mph for about 45 minutes, long enough to conduct surveillance of nearly any site in a single run, day or night. It includes a 50mp wide angle camera and a 4K 25x zoom camera with 640 x 512 thermal resolution and a 1.5 km measuring range.  The drone also includes 360° obstacle avoidance and AES-256 encryption for advanced cyber-security.  Its transmission range is about 12 miles.

The Titan is a heavy-lift octocopter that can carry packages up to 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds). It can fly faster and longer (60 minutes) than the Alpha and includes all-weather protection that stabilizes the craft in heavy wind and rain. It has a somewhat longer transmission range, which makes it even more convenient for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) missions.  It can also fly as high as 7,000 meters which makes it ideal for difficult-to-reach mountainous areas.  It’s also equipped with 4G/5G modules that allow it to maneuver in GPS-denied areas.

While the Titan may be ideally geared to logistics, it can also crossover into emergency response, search-and-rescue and disaster relief to deliver food, blankets and supplies to rescuers or victims.  In some of these operations, the Alpha and Titan might be used in tandem, one for the initial aerial surveillance and identification of the target, the other for the follow up support effort.

Autel isn’t stopping there.  Its latest roll-out will also include upgraded versions of the EVO mini-drone – the EVO Max 4T and the EVO Max 4N.  The new drones, equipped with high-powered infrared and thermal imaging cameras, are aimed at giving Autel entree into the night vision market,  The EVO Max 4N, about which more is known, comes with 2.3 mp , 0.0001 Lux ambient brightness detection camera and a wide-angle camera 50 mp, 1/1.28″ camera with a 85° FOV. The EVO Max 4T also comes with wide, zoom, and thermal cameras, with 8K resolution, and a binocular vision system.  Both new models are seen as commercial platforms with enhanced night-vision capabilities, which can increase their utility in a variety of commercial applications, including law enforcement and inspection operations.

This is not the first time Autel has sought to compete with DJI.  Earlier models like the Autel Evo Lite were designed to compete with the DJI Air 2S and the Autel Nano Mini went head-to-head with the DJI Mini 2. But this was largely competition in the advanced hobbyist niche.  Now, Autel is challenging DJI in more lucrative commercial niches.  The Autel Alpha, for example, is pitched against DJI’s M30 quadcopter series.  The RTK version of the M30 includes six directional sensors and primary flight display positioning and can fly for an impressive 51 minutes, a bit longer than Autel’s new Alpha.  But the Alpha is more weather resistant and has a slightly longer transmission range and flight duration.  The M30 lists for a pricey $9,000.  If the Alpha turns out to be cheaper, it could well edge out DJI’s flagship.

Another issue, of course, is whether Autel will prove less susceptible to regulatory controls based simply on its country-of-origin.  Most legislative efforts currently focus narrowly on DJI, which for now, at least, is opening up fresh space for Autel to expand its share of the market.

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