Will DJI build an FPV racing drone?
That question is being kicked around again, following a recent patent application for a new type of gimbal that appears to keep the camera enclosed within a protective device – a design very suitable for this kind of application. That, plus a concept sketch of a racing drone from someone with street cred have people talking.
On the surface, it would make sense that DJI might tackle such a project. And there’s certainly some fresh speculation and interest out there, including on DroneDJ.
In some ways, it might make sense: The company has already more than dipped its toe into the FPV waters.
First, back in 2016, it gave the public a sneak preview of DJI Goggles. That somewhat cumbersome unit was unveiled in New York City in conjunction with the Mavic Pro – though sales would not commence until 2017 (at which point DJI often sold out within hours of announcing product availability).
At the time, people were stunned to see near-realtime video streaming from the Mavic Pro directly to these beasts. The digital transmission was crystal-clear, with none of the artifacts and glitches so common with FPV goggles.
I was fortunate enough to attend that New York launch and remember being blown away both by the Mavic Pro and the goggles. (In fact, the media and influencers cramming the event were lined up to try out the DJI FPV experience.)
I asked someone senior whether these would be compatible with the FPV racing scene. Nope, not this time around. “These goggles are digital – and you’d need analog to work with the FPV racers.”
Well, fast-forward one generation and DJI released DJI Goggles: Racing Edition. This update could work with both DJI’s own models using digital video transmission via OcuSync, as well as FPV racers on analog.
“Fly with smooth, clear video and experience the thrill of drone racing like never before,” promised DJI’s marketing material. Was this a signal that DJI would be entering the FPV racing arena? Maybe yes, maybe no.
One fast snail…
With less fanfare, DJI also started producing and selling some FPV racing components – building fast motors and a racing Electronic Speed Controller.
The “Snail” propulsion system featured 1.32 kg of thrust, optimized for 140 kmh flight with matching ESCs. The company even tested the Snail, with its own special tri-blade racing props, in wind-tunnels to optimize thrust and efficiency while minimizing drag. The company also produced “Takyon” ESCs featuring a custom-designed System on a Chip (SOC). It was also designed so that a user with DJI Assistant 2 could easily tweak parameters and update its firmware.
You ain’t seen nothing yet…
Then, in 2019, came the DJI Digital First Person Viewing (FPV) Transmission System – which featured a camera and goggles operating on a digital transmission system. After years of Fat Shark largely dominating the FPV racing scene, there was suddenly competition. The DJI FPV system produced an unbelievably clear image, largely free of artifacts. More than ever before, flying an FPV drone truly felt like you were in the air.
David Klein is an FPV designer, builder, pilot, and retailer. His company, rotorgeeks.com, was literally one of the first – if not *the* first – shops out there specializing in multi-rotors. He’d flown with probably every serious pair of goggles produced since FPV became a thing. Then he put on the DJI system.
“The terminology gets used all the time and I don’t throw it around. But it’s a game-changer – this is absolutely a game changer,” he tells DroneDJ. “This is what I’d been waiting for in seven years of FPV.”
Klein recalls the first time trying out the product. He simply sat for a long time before taking off, absorbing the view. It was, he said, like the quantum leap between an old standard definition tube television and an HDTV. Breathtaking.
“It was the level of detail, being able to see individual blades of grass.”
Once he was in the air, Klein recalls also seeing things like smaller branches – and even power lines – that were often difficult or impossible to spot with lower-resolution analog systems. He was incredibly impressed in terms of the quality.
But while the DJI system is great for the FPV pilot, the current goggle system is not built for the FPV racing world. Why? Klein points out that the racing industry requires a simple “video out” solution so that spectators and the judge can easily monitor the feed of any racer at any time. And while DJI does now offer a somewhat costly workaround, Klein says by not allowing a simple and direct output DJI has shut this particular product out of the competitive racing market.
“If they want to get into racing, they’ll open up their video output. If not they’re never going to get there.”David Klein, Designer/Builder/Owner, Rotorgeeks
Okay. But what about a racing drone?
So – we’ve seen a number of products that dance around the edge of this sector. But we haven’t seen a DJI FPV racer yet. Does it make sense for DJI to enter this market?
No, says Klein. FPV racing, by its nature, is about squeezing every last increment of speed and responsiveness out of one’s racing machine. It’s about crashing, re-building, and then crashing again. Would DJI really want to build and sell a product that would be a nightmare to support? (“Hello, DJI… Yeah, I just flew my new racer into the ground. Yeah, it’s all in pieces. It’s under warranty, right?”)
Plus, DJI’s product history is all about packing more and more features into products that are easy to learn to use. The FPV racing scene is very different.
“Most of the racing that’s done is people building their own machines,” says Klein. “And they will want to be able to make all those equipment choices and modifications. So a full drone from DJI would have no place here.”
The only potential exception, he says, might be if DJI considered either creating or sponsoring a new league, where all competitors fly precisely the same drones. It’s the model currently being used successfully by the Drone Racing League.
But would a new competitive league produce the kind of demand necessary for a new product investment to pay off? Not likely.
“I don’t think the racing scene is big enough to support it,” says Klein. “And I don’t think that DJI has the will to do it, or that the rewards would be there.”
Who knows? Something could well be in the pipeline.
But a full-blown, competitive FPV racing machine that allows for the mods the industry demands? Doubtful.