TAIPEI — China’s UAV development appears to have bypassed the cottage industry stage where many Western UAV programs find their roots and has emerged onto the high-tech stage as if it appeared out a fog.
The staggering numbers of UAVs on display at the 2012 Zhuhai Airshow were too many to count. Just six years before, at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow, you could count them with one hand.
Now there are UAV conferences and exhibitions in China along with a glossy magazine full of advertisements dubbed, “Unmanned Vehicles,” published by China Aviation Publishing and Media.
The 2012 Vanguard Wings — UAV Conference and Exhibition, Beijing, had more than 60 UAVs on display. In 2011, China held the fourth Beijing Police Equipment and Anti-terrorism UAV Exhibition with displays of smaller UAVs geared more for street surveillance. Information about these conferences, as well as a wide range of information on Chinese UAV companies, is available at uavdata.org in Chinese.
The Pentagon’s Defense Science Board (DSB) issued a “wakeup call” over Chinese UAV development. The report, “The Role of Autonomy in DoD Systems,” issued in October, said the military significance of China’s move into unmanned systems is “alarming” and China has a “great deal of technology, seemingly unlimited resources and clearly is leveraging all available information on Western unmanned systems development.” This might allow China to “match or outpace U.S. spending on unmanned systems, rapidly close the technology gaps and become a formidable global competitor in unmanned systems.”Due to transparency and language hurdles, many of China’s UAV programs remain unidentified. Chinese UAV manufacturers are not shy from showing off their equipment at aviation shows and on company websites. Once again due to language issues, China’s UAVs developments are widely misunderstood in the West.The proliferation of UAVs at Chinese aviation and defense exhibitions not just in China, but at international air shows such as Dubai and Singapore, demonstrate “China’s determination to catch up in this sector, but also its desire to sell this technology abroad,” the DSB report said.According to a 2010 Frost and Sullivan report issued to an unidentified “U.S. Embassy,” entitled, “An Overview of Asia Pacific Unmanned Aircraft Systems Market,” said the Asia-Pacific market alone for UAVs will keep China busy.Even Southeast Asian countries with small budgets will be buying an assortment of UAVs for different missions. Malaysia’s UAV market was estimated to be worth $90 million, with a focus on maritime operations and coast guard sales. Taiwan’s market was expected to be worth $600 million, with the threat of Chinese invasion serving as the driver. Indonesia was estimated at $125 million, with “ultra terrorist movement and territorial disputes” driving sales. Thailand could spend up to $300 million for UAVs, with “internal security threats” serving as the drivers.The Frost and Sullivan report believes that the UAV market in the Asia Pacific will experience sustained growth until at least 2016. “The UAV market in Asia Pacific will be led by Tactical UAVs (TUAVs), and followed closely by Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAVs.”The High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAV market will be driven by more advanced countries, such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, and South Korea. Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) “was inducted for usage for Japan in the early days,” but has not “garnered sufficient support from other countries in the Asia Pacific.” However, VTOL sales are expected to increase, said the report, “due to enhanced technologies handling capabilities and new naval defense article procurement.”China appears to be mastering UAV missions at sea. In 2012 photographs taken a Japanese military aircraft of a Chinese naval fleet passing between Miyakojima and Okinawa ended up on the Internet. Photographs show a VTOL UAV flying near one of the vessels; similar in design to the Schiebel CAMCOPTER S-100.China’s new Liaoning aircraft carrier could be equipped with a new unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), said Richard Fisher, senior fellow, Asian Military Affairs, International Assessment and Strategy Center.Fisher said that in early March images emerged on the Internet of a reported flying wing UAV being built by the Hongdu Aircraft Corporation, reportedly in cooperation with the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. Shenyang is well known for their UCAV programs, he said. Additional reports out of China indicate that a Shenyang-designed UCAV prototype was completed in mid-December and that the Chinese navy is the key sponsor of the program.Fisher speculates that the Chinese navy is attempting to develop a unmanned carrier launched airborne surveillance and strike (U-CLASS) UAV. “But there is further Chinese-source speculation that Shenyang may move in another direction: building a larger stealthy flying wing UCAV similar in performance profile to a medium bomber.”During the 2010 Zhuhai Airshow, Chinese UAV companies displayed murals of UCAVs attacking U.S. aircraft carriers. Artistic renderings of UAVs providing targeting data for these UAVs were also evident.