Romeo Durscher DJI Auterion

Drone luminary Romeo Durscher reflects on past 6 years at DJI – and what’s ahead for the drone industry

Romeo Durscher has long been an advocate of drones for good. And after six years working at drone maker DJI in roles ranging from Director of Education to Senior Director of Public Safety Integration, Durscher in January announced that he was leaving DJI and joining open-source drone software platform Auterion.

In his new role as Auterion’s new Vice President of Public Safety, Durscher will primarily be focused on helping first responders use drone systems with open source software — bringing his years of expertise working with first responders at DJI, where he was involved in the launch of many first-response focused products, including the Matrice 300 and the DJI XT2 thermal imaging camera created in partnership with thermal camera maker FLIR.

DJI Matrice 300 M300 drone commercial quadcopter
DJI’s Matrice 300 drone

“In some ways, it’s a trip back in a time machine, but with the knowledge I had in the future,” Durscher said of beginning his new role at Auterion.

Auterion is a relatively new company, with its key product — a drone “brain” called Skynode — having launched just last May. And it has just over 60 employees— a minuscule figure compared to the estimated 14,000 currently employed by DJI.

When Durscher joined DJI in 2015, the company had an estimated 2,800 employees.

“One thing we were able to do really well at DJI was scale,” Durscher said. “Especially in the early days, we could bring a need or problem to the team, find a solution, implement and scale.”

The challenge, he said, was to be able to think long-term, which he said is crucial to success, especially in drones.

“What I was never able to do was change the mindset of thinking beyond this or next quarter,” he said. “You’re so much more limited if you can only plan one, two or maybe three quarters ahead. With Auterion, I’m thinking about those mid- and long-term solutions.”

Among the solutions Durscher has in mind? Creating standards for products to mold to, enabling someone to get the same outcome, but with the freedom to choose which product they use to get there.

Romeo Durscher Auterion DJI leader VP Public Safety
Image of Romeo Durscher courtesy of Auterion

The drone technology developments Durscher says we need in the short-term future

Durscher shared what developments he hopes to see come from the drone industry.

More open-source: In the field where Durscher specializes in — public safety — it’s especially important to have open-source products. A first responder might use a nimble, small Mavic Air in one emergency response situation, such as spotting a lost hiker in the wilderness, but would use a Matrice 600 with a thermal camera mounted to it during a fire.

“If you have different apps for all these different platforms that are not standardized, it’s a nightmare to train for all of their different standards,” he said.

Open-source enables operators to control multiple drones made by different manufacturers — all from one interface.

“If you fly a Mavic Mini and then a Phantom 4 and then an M300, you’re using different apps running different software every time,” he said. “That’s the key — with open standards — we make it so the interface feels the same no matter what drone you fly.”

Streamlining the data pipeline: One of the biggest challenges for drone operators is that it’s so easy to gather data, but it’s much tougher to know how to organize and interpret it.

“The whole data pipeline is crazy to me,” Durscher said. “We are still dealing with SD cards. I think of our natural disaster programs and the amount of SD cards we had to manage — and the amount of SD cards we lost.”

Durscher said he hopes future technology focuses on building software, likely based on machine learning, to make data more actionable and easier to manage.

“If you don’t have the pipes that gets the oil to the right places, it’s still as useless as it was before.”

A focus on short-distance drone delivery: Many companies have their sights set on long-distance drone deliveries. The challenge with flying drones beyond visual line of sight, of course, is not the technology itself, but government regulation.

In light of that, Durscher said that drone delivery companies should be proving their capabilities with short-distance deliveries in the interim. What’s more, there are plenty of literally life-saving use cases to prove their worth.

He said he hopes to see drones carry out tasks like delivering life vests.

Many companies like Amazon Prime Air and Wing have ambitious drone delivery projects in the works, but Durscher says there’s already a need for smaller-scale delivery operations, such as delivering life jackets. A 2015 Kickstarter called Project Ryptide once sought to execute such deliveries. Image courtesy of Project Ryptide.

Combating DJI’s market share dominance

The idea of being able to control drones made by different manufacturers is especially relevant at a time when people worry that DJI’s market share is alarmingly high. Estimates for the Chinese drone company’s market share have often exceeded 70%. And while the DJI 2019 market share dropped a hair to 69%, according to the DroneAnalyst 2020 Drone Market Sector Report, it’s still far above any of the competition.

Many experts believe that open source prevents one company from establishing a monopoly, as some fear with DJI.

“What it really leads down to is increasing those open standards, so that not a single company or single standard becomes that piece that everyone has to adhere to,” Durscher said. “When we as a community create those standards, then everybody wins. The industry gets more solutions and participation, while the end user gets one standard but can use multiple different products.”

Could DJI’s current dominance end up hurting it in the long-run? Perhaps. Durscher said that while working at DJI, “we got somewhat spoiled that we had this big DJI umbrella that we were under, and we didn’t have to think outside it.”

Skynode
Auterion’s Skynode, which is a sort of “drone brain.”

But DJI has run into many challenges lately — one of the most notable being that it was recently added to the U.S. government’s restricted trade list due to potential Chinese government ties.

“In the past few years, we were forced to think outside of the DJI umbrella — and not just because DJI is on an entities list — but because we’re starting to see solutions beyond what DJI is offering.”

Cynthia Huang Auterion
Cynthia Huang recently joined Auterion from DJI as the company’s new Vice President of Enterprise Business Development.

What to expect for the future of Auterion

Auterion has made a number of key hires lately, including now-former DJI Director Of Business Development Cynthia Huang, who joined the Auterion team in December as Vice President of Enterprise Business Development.

“It really shows that there is a lot of faith and interest — not only from people who have been in the industry for some time to explore something else — but from the market. It’s their trust to bring people who have knowledge, and a positive view of the industry.”

While Durscher said he doesn’t think Auterion will grow to DJI’s scale in dominance, he does think the recent moves “are another wake up call for DJI to internally change things.”

Auterion also does openly consider itself as a DJI alternative — as is clearly stated on its website homepage.

As seen in this screenshot of Auterion’s website, the company calls itself a “DJI Alternative.”

“Auterion is certainly a small player compared to DJI,” Durscher acknowledged. “The goal is not to become the biggest in the drone industry, but we have a great opportunity to establish ourselves as a competitor that offers a different approach, especially for entities that need multiple platform for different purchases and missions.”

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