DJI, the Chinese startup leading the market for consumer and commercial drones, kicked off its second annual AirWorks Conference in Denver today. The event focuses on promoting the ways drones can be used by law enforcement and industries like agriculture, construction, and energy. DJI also unveiled its first web app, FlightHub, that allows an operator to manage a fleet of 10 or more drones at once. And it rolled out two new versions of its customizable Wind drones, the units built to handle high winds, rain, and payloads of nearly 30 pounds.
Sadly, you won’t find these new units available for purchase on DJI’s website. Wind drones are aimed at enterprise customers who want a custom build that goes above and beyond what DJI usually offers.
Along with this new hardware, DJI announced a partnership with the Menlo Park, California Fire Protection District. During the recent Santa Rosa fire, the Menlo Park FPD conducted over 120 drone flights. According to a press release, DJI drones were used to “provide situational awareness for authorities, assist with search and recovery efforts, and survey destroyed neighborhoods.”
Menlo Park FPD is one of the first customers to beta test DJI’s new FlightHub software. The system offers real-time data on each drone’s position, orientation, and speed. It can also show four simultaneous live streams. There are also plenty of boring but necessary features, like managing media from multiple units in cloud storage, and giving an administrator the ability to track and authorize the use of drones to lots of different employees. DJI has been working with fire departments for a while, but its integration with their activities is clearly growing.
“Working closely with DJI the past 18 months has enabled us to better understand just how much more utility we can get from their aerial drone platforms,” said Harold Schapelhouman, fire chief at Menlo Park FPD. “Our collaboration in Santa Rosa produced a tremendous amount of insightful data that has helped us develop a plan of action and manage our resources more efficiently during this critical time. As they experience the pain points of coordinating disaster operations and on-site data transfer, we discover more ways in which we can push the boundaries of aerial technology to better serve the community.”
FlightHub has also been beta tested in the transportation industry. “When we first started the drone program at BNSF, we had to develop a lot of processes from scratch, including the tasks of manually logging flights and conducting checks to ensure each team out on the field was following maintenance instructions at all times,” said Nick Dryer, UAS Field Ops Manager at BNSF, one of the largest freight railroad network operators in North America. “FlightHub has made our program significantly easier to manage by providing a full view of real-time operations and internal communications in one platform. This solution has given us the opportunity to further expand the use of this new technology in an old industry.”
Along with rolling out new products and partnerships, DJI used AirWorks as a chance to announce an investment. SkyFund, which is backed by DJI and the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Accel, is putting money into a New York City startup called Automodality. The company was the winner of DJI’s 2016 SDK challenge, and has designed a system that allows drones to safely and autonomously handle the most dangerous parts of bridge inspection.
Disclosure: Accel is also an investor in Vox Media, the parent company of The Verge.