DJI’s Phantom drones could be blocked from US in trade spat

  • TECH
  • Monday, 03 Sep 2018

A Mavic 2 drone is pictured at the DJI booth during the IFA, the world's leading trade show for consumer electronics and home appliances, in Berlin on August 30, 2018. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

The world’s biggest maker of civilian drones could see its products shut out of the US market after a patent-infringement complaint was filed by smaller rival. 

SZ DJI Technology Co, a manufacturer of popular hobbyist and commercial drones including the Phantom and Mavic series, is being challenged by Autel Robotics Co. 

The dispute is over unmanned vehicles used for aerial photography and videotaping, as well as for agricultural purposes. The world’s best-selling drone is the family known as the DJI Phantom, which has a distinctive white plastic exterior and a mount for a camera on its belly. 

The Federal Aviation Administration predicted that 1.6 million civilian drones will be sold in the US this year. The Teal Group of Fairfax, Virginia, estimated the 2018 worldwide civilian unmanned aircraft market will reach US$4.4bil (RM18.16bil). 

The China-based DJI is accused of using Autel’s patented features for following a flight path while avoiding obstacles, rotor assembly, and a way to switch out battery packs to minimize lag time between flights. 

Chinese-made Phantom 

Autel wants the US International Trade Commission to ban imports of models of DJI’s Phantom, Mavic, Spark and Inspire drones made in China by DJI, according to a complaint filed in Washington on Thursday. 

Autel, which says it designs and makes its drones in the US, contends in the complaint that excluding DJI drones from the US “is likely to improve competitive conditions” in the market by providing opportunities for others, including Autel, Yuneec International Co and Parrot SA. 

Even if DJI’s products are excluded, “consumers would still have a variety of products from which to choose that would be manufactured by Autel and other companies”, Autel said in the complaint. 

Adam Lisberg, a spokesman for DJI, said the company had no comment on the complaint. 

The trade complaint escalates a legal battle that’s been simmering between the companies for the past two years, after Autel began selling its X-Star quadcopter in the US and later its EVO models. Each has accused the other of incorporating their respective technology without paying for it. 

By filing a complaint with the US trade agency, Autel raises the stakes. It’s rare for a federal court to block sales, even when it involves competing products. The trade commission, by contrast, often issues import bans if it finds products infringe US patents. The patents in this case all expire after 2030. 

If the commission agrees to launch an investigation it typically issues a final decision in about 15 to 18 months. – Bloomberg

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