On 30th August 2018, the American subsidiary of the Chinese company, Autel Intelligent Technology Corp, Autel Robotics, sued their Chinese partners DJI Technology Co. for infringing on their patents on unmanned aerial drones and its components which were exported to the United States of America. The American company called to “end DJI’s unauthorized and infringing manufacture, use, sale, offering for sale, and/or importation of methods and products incorporating Autel’s intellectual property.”
According to Autel Robotics, “a ban on DJI products will be a big deal if DJI’s big market is in the United States.” Referred to as the Apple of the drone industry by Quartz, DJI has been a dominant force in the drone market. According to a Skylogic Research, the company controls about 72% of the North American market of drones costing from $500 to $1000; they do not dominate the market for drones under $500 only because they do not have drones that cheap. DJI also controls 70% of the market for drones costing over $1000 and $2000, according to the same research.
Their closest competitors are Yuneec and Parrot, whom each see a market share of 7% in this industry. Some factions believe that these smaller rivals might have seen DJI’s success and monopoly in the industry as a threat to their organizations.
It is general knowledge that organizations usually patent random technology, and keep it as vague as possible, and then look to cash out of possible infringements, but there is doubt that this is the case in this DJI lawsuit because Autel Robotics have challenged their U.S subsidiary in the past. Similarly, on April 26 2018, they also claimed, in a lawsuit, that some of their propeller locking mechanism as well as software for flight control were copied by DJI.
For the most recent episode, the patented features were tech which allows drones and other unmanned crafts to dodge obstacles while following a path, as well as the assembly of the rotors and a means of replacing batteries in a way that reduces lag time between trips. Regarding the first piece of tech, the obstacle avoidance mechanism was first featured on the DJI Mavic Air in January 2017. The technology was also spotted on subsequent models release last August –Mavic 2 Zoom and Mavic 2 Pro.
If this lawsuit or subsequent ones are raised in the future, DJI Technology Co. risks losing access to the American market because if the International Trade Commission discovers that these products infringe U.S.A. patents, it is likely to issue an import ban. However, if the U.S.A. trade agency investigates this issue, a final decision will be issued between five to eighteen months.
Scheduled for 6th October 2019 is a 7-day jury trial for the lawsuit. Given the significance of the parties involved, organizations around the world will pay keen attention to how these disputes play out.