China’s drone industry

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), have grown in popularity recently. UAVs are now widely used in various aspects of retail, agriculture, transportation, and construction for commercial, governmental, and consumer purposes.

Types of UAVs include military and civilian. Civilian drones account for a larger proportion of China’s drone market at 60%, while military counterparts constitute 40%.

China’s military UAV exports are the world’s second-largest, only after the U.S. In 2019, it made up 40% of the global market size, with about 29 billion yuan (4 billion dollars). This figure then increased to nearly 40 billion yuan in 2020, or 5.6 billion dollars.

Regarding the civil drone market, the market size amounted to 43.5 billion yuan (6 billion dollars) in 2019 and then rose to just under 60 billion yuan (8.3 billion dollars) in the subsequent year. There are 2 sub-types, namely consumer and industrial. In 2019, consumer drones accounted for 65% of the market share.

As early as 1960, China began to develop UAVs. Up to now, its drone industry has experienced rapid growth, especially in the number of registered users and registrations of drones. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, from 2018 to 2020, these figures increased significantly. By 2020, there were 558,000 registered users and 517,000 registered drones.

By the end of 2021, 781,000 users registered to use drones, and the quantity of registered drones totaled 832,000.

The flight hours of drones participating in the UAV cloud exchange system of the Civil Aviation Administration witnessed the same pattern, rising from 370,000 hours in 2018 to 1.83 million hours in 2020.

The domestic drone market is expected to exceed 100 billion yuan (14 billion dollars) by the end of 2022.

Asia Perspective predicted that China’s drone market will grow 40.57% between 2017 and 2024.

China’s drone buzzes

During the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s local authorities have adopted measures to inform and control residents.

Cảnh máy bay không người lái nhắc nhở người dân 

<Residents are required to strictly follow regulations of anti-epidemic prevention and the notice of the Jianyin Epidemic Prevention and Control. Be strictly isolated at home. It is not allowed to go out. People take turns getting food supplies.”>

Drones have also joined to provide medical supply transportation services for Luohu hospital in Shenzhen, with more than 3 thousand flights and over 1 million samples transported.

In addition, drones are used in food delivery. For example, Meituan drones have completed more than 140,000 flights in Shenzhen. It has covered over 10 communities and business districts and served nearly 20,000 people. SF’s drones have fulfilled over 600,000 flights to serve about 1 million orders and cargo weight of nearly 1,300 tons.

However, its operations are not always straightforward.

According to Guangdong Public Network Security, the widespread use of drones is associated with security risks.

It is reported that since the opening of the People’s Heroes Monument located on the Suzhou River in Shanghai, many drones have been flying around the building day and night to take pictures. The drones flying together inevitably collide with each other. 

More dangerously, drones can have an adverse impact on aviation operations. According to High-tech Robotics Network, in January 2017, a citizen Yuan Mou used a DJI drone to capture the sunset at an altitude of 450 meters for about 10 minutes, about 8.5 miles from the airport in Xinjie Town, Xiaoshan District. During the filming and photo-taking process, several airplanes were flying by. This would go unnoticed until a passenger captured footage of the drone following an aircraft and then uploaded it to social media. With a distance of about 100 meters, this situation could bring about many concerns, such as bombing or collision.

Moreover, drones may suddenly hit people, resulting in injuries. For example, at about 2 pm on October 3 this year, a man got hurt while riding an e-bike on the road in Liangcha Town, Lianshui County. The drone’s wind blade was spinning at high speed and then hit the man’s head. Consequently, he fell to the ground, being soaked with blood.

As reported by the Chinese tabloid Global Times, at the end of January 2021, approximately 100 drones lost control and crashed into a building during a show in Chongqing. During the performance, an abundance of drones displayed abnormal operations. Some moved slowly toward a building; some crashed into it, while others dropped from the air to the ground or fell into the river. Several people screamed out as they could not control the machines. Despite the fact that nobody was hurt, the incident made the show designers incur huge economic losses.

Another case occurred in October of the same year at the Wanda Plaza shopping mall in Zhengzhou. The event aimed to commemorate the mall’s anniversary with around 200 drones forming various shapes and words. [Footage thứ 2- 0:50 – 1:10, phần trình diễn]

However, in a light show, they all started descending uncontrollably toward the ground after only 2 and a half minutes. [Footage thứ nhất 0:10 – 0:30] According to DroneDJ.com, the show organizer reported the incident to the police, suspecting that the navigation system of the drones was interfered by a competitor in the same industry.

Most recently, China’s drones have added to tensions between the nation and Taiwan. As reported by the New York Times, in August this year, nearly 30 unarmed drones buzzed two islands belonging to Taiwan.

Although the drones were mostly civilian, it was obvious that they were targeting the garrison of Taiwanese soldiers on the rocky outcrops.

Chieh Chung, an analyst at Taiwan’s National Policy Foundation, says, “Don’t assume that a civilian drone has nothing to do with military purposes.”

Repeated incursions from China put pressure on Taiwan’s government to take a tough stance. On September 1, Taiwanese soldiers shot down China’s civilian drone. This shows an unusual move from Taiwan, which has been restrained in pushing back against China.

Nikkei Asia highlighted that drones would be useful to China in a Taiwan scenario for some reasons, including providing real-time intelligence and surveillance data or dazzling and confusing air defenses. Moreover, the employment of drones is likely intended to unnerve and intimidate. That’s why China has recently conducted tests with hundreds of automated drones. 

Drones may also play a growing role in the U.S.-China military competition, partly because both nations are developing more powerful and sophisticated drones that will perform more critical missions.
Nikkei Asia does not rule out the possibility that drones will initiate hostilities between the two superpowers that then spiral uncontrollably.

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