Bloomberg Businessweek

THE AIRBORNE SUPREMACY

CHINA’S DJI OWNS THE MARKET FOR CONSUMER DRONES. NOW IT’S RECKONING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES

Every summer, DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, puts on a competition in Shenzhen called RoboMaster. If amateur robotics warfare isn’t your hobby of choice, you should know that at the event hundreds of university students from China, Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere build robotic vehicles the size of lawn mowers, arm them with plastic bullets, and pit the machines against one another in front of thousands of screaming fans.

The competition was Frank Wang’s idea. For several years, the founder and chief executive officer of DJI (full name: SZ DJI Technology Co.) has attempted to turn RoboMaster into something like a cult that celebrates engineering—and, not incidentally, stokes demand for his company’s products. Along with the event, there’s a TV cartoon, a reality show, a documentary, and a comic book series. Starting last year, DJI began selling a smaller version of a battlebot to consumers as a DIY kit called the RoboMaster S1.

In public, Wang doesn’t preach the RoboMaster gospel himself. He’s perhaps the most private tech CEO of them all, shunning all but a handful of media requests over his 14 years as DJI’s boss and figurehead. He stood up a planned interview for this story twice, leaving his representatives to apologize and explain that they just never quite know what the man will do. In fact, the rumor going around DJI’s press office is that Wang might not speak to a reporter ever again.

Reclusiveness is a bit off-brand for the world’s first drone billionaire. DJI has filled the skies with cheap, easy-to-use flying machines that produce vivid video records of the world below. It has improved these products at such a relentless pace that rivals don’t so much compete with DJI as cower before it. Photographers, filmmakers, and gadget wonks adore DJI and obsess over its every invention. Other Chinese tech companies are still sometimes dismissed as lame copycats, but DJI has proved that China’s startup scene can create an original global brand with a steady supply of die-hard fans.

And yet the company’s future suddenly seems uncertain. Talk of an initial public offering, which never came to pass, has

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