DJI’s New Drone for Kids Is a $500 Tank That Fires Lasers and Pellets
DJI’s RoboMaster S1. (Photographer: Victor Prado for Bloomberg Businessweek)

DJI’s New Drone for Kids Is a $500 Tank That Fires Lasers and Pellets

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- DJI, the world’s largest drone maker, has come down to Earth.

On June 11, the company most closely associated with quadcopters plans to unveil a toaster-size robotic tank called the RoboMaster S1. Made of plastic and metal, it has four wheels, a rectangular base, and a gun turret that can swivel and fire lasers or tiny plastic pellets. Unlike DJI’s flying drones, which do everything from taking pretty pictures to fertilizing fields, the RoboMaster is part teaching tool and part battle bot. The odd contraption ships as a kit that people must assemble, learning about robotics and software along the way.

“By doing the assembly process, you get to understand what each part is used for and what the principles are behind it,” says Shuo Yang, one of the lead engineers. “We want it to look like an interesting toy that then teaches basic programming and mechanical knowledge.” Once built, the RoboMaster S1 can be used to blast away at other S1s during some good, old-fashioned at-home family combat.

The tank can trace its origins to DJI’s annual RoboMasters competition, held at a sports stadium in Shenzhen. For about three weeks each year, college-age students from China, Japan, the U.S., and elsewhere gather by the hundreds to engage in all-out robot war. The competitors must build lawnmower-size robots from scratch and then face off on an obstacle-packed course at the center of the arena. Some of the robots fire large plastic bullets at one another and try to invade a rival team’s base. Others work as supply mules gathering up bullets, or as medics that repair wounded comrades.

During the contest, students operate their robots from remote consoles under the barked orders of a commander. Afterward, they retire to a chaotic workspace for robot repairs and upgrades in the belly of the sports arena, where soldering irons, wrenches, and other tools are on hand. Some of the competitors go all day without eating. It’s all robots, all the time, until eventually a winner is crowned in a final match attended by thousands of screaming spectators. And yes, DJI films the whole thing to turn it into a reality show, eventually offering jobs to some of the contestants.

Frank Wang, DJI’s reclusive engineer founder and chief executive officer, started the company out of his dorm room at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and turned it into an empire that accounts for more than 70% of the roughly $4.5 billion civilian drone market, according to analysts and drone registrations. Despite such success, DJI faces challenges from shrinking profits in the drone business and U.S. national security concerns around using products made in China. The RoboMaster S1, like the RoboMasters competition, is meant to foster enthusiasm for the field, particularly in Wang’s home country.

DJI is charging $500 for the S1 take-home kit, which includes numerous parts for the robot’s frame as well as a series of sensors and many, many screws. A hands-on experience with the new product confirms that it takes a dad and his 10-year-old and 7-year-old sons about three hours and six cookies to bring the RoboMaster S1 to life. But there’s joy to be had at the end of the experience.

Users can link the RoboMaster S1 to their smartphones or tablets to see through the bot’s main camera, steering by poking at the screen or simply leaning in different directions, which the mobile device registers through its accelerometer and other sensors. If another S1 comes into sight, the system can lock onto it and hit targets on its body with either a laser or pearl-size plastic pellets that can be fired machine gun-style. The pellets are filled with water and dissolve into dust as the water evaporates—a problem relatively easily solved with a broom and some kids who weren’t psyched to clean.

A player can race the tank around trying to spot targets placed in various locations of a house before a competing bot does, with computer vision algorithms confirming the results. The contests proved far more interesting to the 10-year-old and 7-year-old than the building portion of the exercise, but results may vary based on the kid.

Even though DJI is the only Chinese tech brand many Americans can recognize from store shelves, it’s unclear whether consumers around the world will take to the assembly process or whether parents will really leap at a $500 opportunity to put tiny warring tanks in their homes. The company envisions the S1 as the first of many educational robots—and possibly a way to take its RoboMasters competition from niche reality TV to something more. “In the future, robotics will become another sport,” says Yang, who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. “That’s our vision.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at jmuskus@bloomberg.net

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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