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Why Chinese Drone Giant DJI Is Opening A Silicon Valley R&D Lab

DJI wants to find the best robotics engineers in the Valley, and keep an eye out for potential partners and investments while they’re at it.

Why Chinese Drone Giant DJI Is Opening A Silicon Valley R&D Lab
[Photo: Flickr user Adam Meek]

China’s DJI, the world’s largest maker of consumer drones, is opening a Silicon Valley research and development center in hopes of harnessing the wealth of robotics talent in the area…and identifying potential new partners and investment targets in the process.

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DJI has hired two senior staffers to launch the Palo Alto, California office: former Tesla director of autopilot engineering Darren Liccardo and former Apple antenna-design team lead Rob Schlub.

DJI is not saying how big the R&D center will be, or how many people will work there. According to Fortune, the expectation is that the Palo Alto facility will be about 12,000 square feet and house at least 75 engineers, a fraction of the company’s global engineering workforce.

In an exclusive interview with Fast Company, Liccardo laid out the rationale behind DJI’s formal arrival in Silicon Valley, explaining that the company is hoping to hire several dozen “best in class” engineers, as well as look for partnerships, and possible investment opportunities with, promising startups.

In May, the company announced it had teamed up with Accel Partners, a well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm, on the creation of SkyFund, a $10 million fund aimed at investing in startups building apps for DJI’s platform.

“We’re looking forward to really expanding our R&D efforts [in Silicon Valley] to take our products to the next level,” Liccardo says. “There’s a tremendous amount of activity here in the Valley around robotics, and new technologies that are very relevant to aerial robotics as well as other [forms of] robotics.”

Liccardo said DJI’s interest in the broad field of robotics doesn’t indicate that the company–which is expected to be the first billion-dollar drone maker–is moving beyond the flying vehicles. Rather, he says, the “energy” around robotics in Silicon Valley, as well as other technologies being developed for robotics, can be applied to drones and can lead to a number of compelling innovations across multiple industries and types of robots.

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To Liccardo, who got a Master’s in unmanned aerial vehicle control from the University of California at Berkeley, Silicon Valley is also a hotbed of development for the kinds of sensing and perception technologies that he feels are part of the “closed loop” of robotics systems.

For the most part, the new R&D center will be focused on developing and identifying technologies that back up DJI’s larger, China-based product efforts. But Liccardo says he and his team will also have some autonomy for “exploring and scouting for new technologies and solutions.” He calls the balancing of supporting the home office and leading the drive for new technology a “yin and yang.”

Although Liccardo wouldn’t say how many people he’ll be hiring, DJI’s jobs site provides a hint at the areas in which the Silicon Valley center will be concentrating.

Among the positions DJI is looking to fill in Palo Alto are planning and control software engineers; experts in computer vision; a hardware engineer well-versed in imagers, GPS, and inertial sensors; aerospace engineers with drone experience; drone safety engineers; engineers with lidar or multi-spectral imaging expertise; and more.

In the end, Liccardo said, he and his team will be judged on how well they contribute to DJI’s larger product line, and if they can help the company build successful products for “a variety of industries.” “That’ll be the ultimate metric,” he says.

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About the author

Daniel Terdiman is a San Francisco-based technology journalist with nearly 20 years of experience. A veteran of CNET and VentureBeat, Daniel has also written for Wired, The New York Times, Time, and many other publications.

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