China has quickly emerged as a leading player in the international race for drone manufacturing, with the products already playing a key role in disputed areas of Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) from China have been used against Islamic State forces by Iraqi security units, causing serious casualties in mid-December, military watchers said.
“Many of the Chinese drone manufacturers are selling small UAVs capable of battlefield reconnaissance and some that can now be equipped with missiles,” said Michael Boyle, a drone expert and senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The export potential for Chinese drones, which may now only trail American manufacturing, is huge because the U.S. Congress has imposed tight export controls for American drones, Boyle said.
He added Chinese drones will have a good market in a large number of countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa, which are denied U.S. technology.
Experts believe UAVs will influence political and ministry tussles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, with Japan likely to fly U.S.-made Hawk drones. Chinese drones may also be deployed to protect Chinese investments in troubled and terrorist hit areas in Asia and Africa.
“The area over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is increasingly a prime area for drone competition. They have a number of advantages: drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups,” Boyle said.
The UAV technology is resetting the terms of global competition and quietly altering the rules of the game for many long-simmering conflicts and rivalries, he said.
“This is happening in part because few, if any, states will use drones in the way that the United States currently does, as a way to ruthlessly target militant networks in ungoverned territories,” Boyle said.
Ehang Incorporated, Chinese drone maker, recently caused a stir at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show when it unveiled what is regarded as the world’s first passenger drone.
The company described its product, Ehang 184, as “a manned drone capable of automatically carrying a passenger through the air, simply by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app."
The announcement led some U.S. experts to speculate if China would put soldiers on the machines and use them for some dangerous operations.
Experts differ about the quality and capabilities of the small flying machines made in China. Many regard drones made in Israel and Russia as far superior in terms of technology, compared to the Chinese products.
“Drones are much more inherently dangerous than the cheap toys that China produces in large quantities and that are subject to very limited safety standards,” said Roger Clarke of Xamax Consultancy and a visiting professor at the Australian National University.
“Even in the micro-drone segment, and particularly for hobbyist and small commercial devices, higher-grade engineering standards are essential,” Clarke said.
Boyle warned that it would be wrong for the United States to be complacent because its technological advantage is being gradually eroded due to the global race for acquiring and advancing drone technology.
“While their current technology lags, and in some cases merely imitates, U.S. drone models, global competitors such as China and Russia are now spending billions to catch up to the United States in research and development for drone technology,” he said.
The United States is worried that its superior drone technology may go into the hands of competitors, analysts said.
“There is some evidence that the U.S. has discouraged Israel from selling UAV technology or directly collaborating with China on drone technology and that Israel has voluntarily complied with American export policies to protect its close relations with America,” Boyle said.
Weddings and industry video
Within China, civilian drones are being put to a wide range of uses, including videography during marriages, courier delivery and security surveillance in major industrial projects. Drone production by the country’s roughly 400 manufacturers vaulted nine times within one year during 2015, indicating the extend of demand growth.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China recently issued its first-ever traffic rules for management of drones in the skies. The government says the rules will be implemented on a trial basis, and fine-tuned for regular use later.
"Can you imagine what will happen, if there are no traffic rules for cars, no requirement for drivers' licenses and no number plates for cars? It's the same for aircraft in the sky," Ke Yubao, secretary-general of China's Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, told state broadcaster CCTV.
Traffic rules to vary
The traffic rules will vary according to the size and nature of drones.
"For those light and small consumer drones, the rules are relatively loose, so it will be convenient for ordinary people to play around. But for those big and heavy business-purpose drones, the rules are much more restricted, as they could cause more danger to people," Ke Yubao said.
The administration was jolted when a privately flown drone captured video of a Chinese fighter jet making a landing, and came close to hitting the jet last November, state media said.
“China has many very large and very dense urban areas, where both physical and electronic congestion greatly exacerbate the risk of collisions and near misses," Clarke said.
“It will be necessary to ensure that most drone use in urban areas is banned, and that the law is policed,” he said.