Why DJI probably won't get a US drone ban after patent ruling setback

Source: TechRadar

DJI might be comfortably the biggest name in drones, but it's just had its propellors clipped by a patent trial ruling that could see some of its popular models barred from being sold or imported into the US. Still, we've been here before with smartphones, and there's good reason to believe it won't come to that.

The ruling centers around a claim from Autel Robotics, a US-based drone maker that's owned by Chinese company Autel Intelligent Technology, which says that DJI drones infringe on one its patents about how a drone's propellors fix to its legs.

That might not sound a big deal, but the bombshell for DJI is that the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the US International Trade Commission (ITC) has found in favor of Autel.

Indeed, the judge has recommended that the infringing drones – which include the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom – are banned from being imported into the US, with Autel Robotics' law firm Steptoe claiming that "these products could be taken off the US market as early as July".

It's certainly a blow for DJI and anyone who's been eyeing up one of its drones. But this is far from the end of what has been a long-running battle between the two big Chinese companies.

For a start, the decision needs to be upheld by ITC's full commission, and there's lots of precedent for decisions being overturned there. For example, in 2013 the ITC's full commission reversed a decision by the Administrative Law Judge that said Apple's iPhone and iPads had infringed on a Motorola patent about wireless tech.

And while DJI declined to comment on the ruling, a source close to the company did tell us that the legal proceedings are still ongoing – which suggests this patent war, like so many that have rumbled on for years in the smartphone world, is far from over yet.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Returning to home?

Another factor is that, despite Autel Robotics being based in the US, this is a battle between two Chinese companies, which makes it quite different from the US-China tensions that resulted in the Huawei ban of 2019.

Not that DJI hasn't had its own brushes with the US government recently. In January 2020 it released a statement saying it was "extremely disappointed" by a US Department of the Interior (DOI) order that grounded the department's entire DJI drone fleet for national security reasons.

But this tussle with Autel actually goes all the way to 2016, when DJI sued its rival for copying its Phantom drone. And there were even reports of a patriotic backlash against Autel on Chinese social media in 2018, when it became clear that this recent patent lawsuit was between two companies that both started in Shenzhen.

This all means we could ultimately see the two companies settle in some way, perhaps outside the courts or through a licensing agreement, rather than a US ban on DJI's drones actually coming to fruition.

After all, we've seen many twists turns in the tech-themed patent wars of the past, from 2015's classic Apple vs Samsung to Motorola vs Apple in 2012. And while the winner is rarely us, the tech fans, long-running lawsuits involving companies the size of DJI rarely end in a result that's as emphatic as the one being proposed here.

While it's impossible to predict what's going to happen from here, we think it's a bit too early to predict that DJI's US drones will be hitting the "Return-to-home" button just yet.

DJI might be comfortably the biggest name in drones, but it's just had its propellors clipped by a patent trial ruling that could see some of its popular models barred from being sold or imported into the US. Still, we've been here before with smartphones, and there's good reason to believe it won't come to that.

The ruling centers around a claim from Autel Robotics, a US-based drone maker that's owned by Chinese company Autel Intelligent Technology, which says that DJI drones infringe on one its patents about how a drone's propellors fix to its legs.

That might not sound a big deal, but the bombshell for DJI is that the Chief Administrative Law Judge of the US International Trade Commission (ITC) has found in favor of Autel.

Indeed, the judge has recommended that the infringing drones – which include the DJI Mavic 2 Pro and Mavic 2 Zoom – are banned from being imported into the US, with Autel Robotics' law firm Steptoe claiming that "these products could be taken off the US market as early as July".

It's certainly a blow for DJI and anyone who's been eyeing up one of its drones. But this is far from the end of what has been a long-running battle between the two big Chinese companies.

For a start, the decision needs to be upheld by ITC's full commission, and there's lots of precedent for decisions being overturned there. For example, in 2013 the ITC's full commission reversed a decision by the Administrative Law Judge that said Apple's iPhone and iPads had infringed on a Motorola patent about wireless tech.

And while DJI declined to comment on the ruling, a source close to the company did tell us that the legal proceedings are still ongoing – which suggests this patent war, like so many that have rumbled on for years in the smartphone world, is far from over yet.

DJI Mavic 2 Pro

Returning to home?

Another factor is that, despite Autel Robotics being based in the US, this is a battle between two Chinese companies, which makes it quite different from the US-China tensions that resulted in the Huawei ban of 2019.

Not that DJI hasn't had its own brushes with the US government recently. In January 2020 it released a statement saying it was "extremely disappointed" by a US Department of the Interior (DOI) order that grounded the department's entire DJI drone fleet for national security reasons.

But this tussle with Autel actually goes all the way to 2016, when DJI sued its rival for copying its Phantom drone. And there were even reports of a patriotic backlash against Autel on Chinese social media in 2018, when it became clear that this recent patent lawsuit was between two companies that both started in Shenzhen.

This all means we could ultimately see the two companies settle in some way, perhaps outside the courts or through a licensing agreement, rather than a US ban on DJI's drones actually coming to fruition.

After all, we've seen many twists turns in the tech-themed patent wars of the past, from 2015's classic Apple vs Samsung to Motorola vs Apple in 2012. And while the winner is rarely us, the tech fans, long-running lawsuits involving companies the size of DJI rarely end in a result that's as emphatic as the one being proposed here.

While it's impossible to predict what's going to happen from here, we think it's a bit too early to predict that DJI's US drones will be hitting the "Return-to-home" button just yet.

Read more at TechRadar

Latest Gadgets