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A top European drone maker fears it may get blacklisted by China amid geopolitical tensions

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Key Points
  • The U.S. government blacklisted DJI and dozens of other Chinese firms in December, increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington in the process.
  • The boss of French drone maker Parrot believes that China could blacklist his company in the same way that the U.S. government blacklisted rival Chinese firm DJI.
  • Henri Seydoux, the co-founder and CEO of Parrot, told CNBC that "it may happen" as he touted the company's new ANAFI Ai professional drone, which can be controlled over 4G.
Parrot's ANAFI Ai drone, which is operated over 4G.
Source: Parrot

The boss of French drone maker Parrot believes that China could blacklist his company in the same way that the U.S. government blacklisted rival Chinese firm DJI.

Henri Seydoux, the co-founder and CEO of Parrot, told CNBC that "it may happen" as he touted the company's new ANAFI Ai professional drone, which can be controlled over 4G. The Chinese embassy in London did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

"It's very difficult to sell drones in China," Seydoux said on a call earlier this month, adding that it's not easy to sell software either.

"Parrot sells a lot of drone software and I can tell you that the Chinese market is a place where you have a lot of pressure," he said.

The U.S. government blacklisted DJI and dozens of other Chinese firms in December, increasing tensions between Beijing and Washington in the process.

Seydoux said he thinks the DJI blacklisting has had some impact on Parrot's sales "but it's difficult to read because the market itself, probably due to Covid and also to market cycles, has decreased in the past year."

Parrot's revenues dropped from 76 million euros ($90 million) in 2019, to 57 million euros in 2020.

Seydoux said that DJI doesn't appear to have suffered from the U.S. sanctions as much as Chinese tech giant Huawei has.

Inspection drone

The smartphone-controlled ANAFI Ai drone is being targeted at companies who need to inspect pieces of infrastructure such as powerlines, railways, bridges, and buildings.

It is equipped with a 40-megapixel Sony camera that can be used to zoom in on specific points to see if there's any issues. 

"It looks like a plastic insect," said Seydoux in reference to the drone's appearance.

Unlike most other drones, Parrot's latest machine does not require the pilot to be in the so-called line of sight. Indeed, a person in Lyon could control one of the drones in Paris providing the 4G network coverage was sufficient.

"You don't have any more limitation on the radio link distance," said Seydoux. "You're piloting a device which is a part of the internet."

Certain security considerations have to be taken into account because of this though. "It is very important to have an encrypted link between you and the drone and also to be sure that the drone is sending you accurate data that is not modified by anybody," said Seydoux, adding that there is a special chip on the new drone where the encryption keys are stored.

Founded as a telecoms firm over 20 years ago, the company started out selling Bluetooth, voice recognition, and telephone systems for cars. It pivoted into drones a few years ago and it now employs roughly 450 people with half of those in France and half in Switzerland.

Parrot drones can cost anywhere from a few hundred euros to a few thousand euros. The price of the ANAFI Ai has not yet been disclosed.

Seydoux said Parrot has sold millions of its existing drones to consumers and tens of thousands to businesses and other organizations, with police officers, firefighters, farmers and inspectors among the target market.

Military units in the U.S., France, and Switzerland are using Parrot drones for reconnaissance, Seydoux said, adding that his company will never equip drones with weapons.

"We are against (that),"he said. "We believe that killer robots is something that should be completely avoided. We believe that putting arms on drones is like a crime against humanity. It should be as forbidden as using weaponized gas."

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