China’s Drone Development

The expansion of unmanned aerial systems to countries across the globe continues unabated, with an estimated 50 nations now developing the robotic planes. The technologies are rarely exported, so that most development is in-house, apart from exchanges between the US and its closest allies.

A recent Washington Post story reports on China’s ascendencing drone capability. The low cost of drones makes them cheap choices for reconnaisance and surveillance. The  MQ9-Reaper, manufactured by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, costs about $10.5 million. By comparison, a single F-22 fighter jet costs about $150 million.

The Teal Group in Fairfax estimaets that in the coming decade global spending on drones will double, reaching $94 billion.

Academics and peace activists claim that unmanned technologies lower the threshold for entering wars, in addition to rendering the look and feel of war as a ‘video game’.

“They could reduce the threshold for going to war,” said Noel Sharkey, a professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield in England. “One of the great inhibitors of war is the body bag count, but that is undermined by the idea of riskless war.”

No country has ramped up research in recent years faster than China, with a research center devoted to their development.

“The United States doesn’t export many attack drones, so we’re taking advantage of that hole in the market,” said Zhang Qiaoliang, a representative of the Chengdu Aircraft Design and Research Institute, which manufactures many of the most advanced military aircraft for the People’s Liberation Army. “The main reason is the amazing demand in the market for drones after 9/11.”

Israel is the second-largest drone manufacturer after the United States. India announced this year that it is developing ones that will fire missiles and fly at 30,000 feet. Pakistan has said it plans to obtain armed drones from China, which has already sold the nation ones for surveillance. And Iran last summer unveiled a drone that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the “ambassador of death”. The US is developing an ‘aircraft carrier’ drone to provide sea-based support in the pacific.

Unlike the US, there are few constraints to China selling its drones abroad, and anticipates selling its ‘pterodactyl’ to Pakistan, the Middle East and Africa.

Chinese drone prototypes

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