China is the home of drones.
There are hundreds of Chinese companies in the billion-dollar drone industry, all vying for your attention and wallet.
From inexpensive drones you can play with in the park to commercial and enterprise-grade machines, chances are the drone is Chinese.
In the past decade, drone hardware and software has developed so quickly that regulators around the world – including the Chinese – can hardly keep up.
In this article, I’m going to cover off the basics including Chinese drone manufacturers, drone guidelines in China, and how the technology is changing local people’s lives.
So, let’s get into it.
Drones do different things
First, it’s worth pointing out that drones come in all shapes and sizes, and have a variety of uses.
You may have heard the term ‘UAV’ (unmanned aerial vehicle) – it’s the same thing as a drone.
For many people, personal drones are now the must-have gadget. These little flying robots are remote-controlled or can even fly autonomously via sensors and GPS software.
On a commercial level, drones are now being used to get things done and solve problems.
They’re used to obtain data, make films, deliver products, and even be involved in things like firefighting and emergency rescue.
Agricultural drones can monitor crops and spray them, increasing crop production and making farms more efficient.
Drones can also be used for military reasons. In fact, this is where drones began.
It’s no wonder then that there is so much interest in this technology.
Where are Chinese drones made?
The drone industry is centered around the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.
Known as China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen has a huge tech sector. Historically, the city also had a big advantage being close to Hong Kong.
Not only is Shenzhen the drone capital of China, it’s home to DJI, the largest drone maker in the world.
As of 2020, more than 80% of civilian drones are made by Chinese companies.
Chinese drone manufacturers
There are countless Chinese companies operating in the growing drone industry. Here are just a handful.
This is the big one. DJI dominates the non-military drone market and is the most well-known globally.
When DJI first started in 2006, their drones required DIY soldering and wiring, making them appealing to hobbyists. People even attached their own camera!
But in the years since, the company has developed its technology so much that it now has enterprise-level and agricultural drones, as well as world-class personal drones.
The company is estimated to be worth a staggering $15 billion.
Shanghai-based AutoFlight boasts commercial UAVs that can travel long distances, backed by German R&D.
Its electric V400 Xintianweng drone can hold up to 500 kilograms (1,102 pounds) and can transport goods quickly and efficiently.
It’s planned to be used in medical and fire emergencies.
Yuneec started out as a manufacturer of remote-controlled aircraft for model-making enthusiasts.
They now sell a range of advanced drones including commercial ones. Yuneec even offers a ‘fly now, pay later’ line of credit.
Chinese drone maker INNNO offers industrial applications to help patrol power lines, gas pipelines, and highways and roads.
Its products can also be used to monitor power plant emissions and the health of forests.
See also: Pollution in China
While there aren’t too many restricted areas in most Chinese cities, the central Beijing area is a no-fly zone.
A DJI drone won’t be able to take off in that area because of factory-built GPS settings.
So, if you have plans of flying over Tiananmen Square, think again!
Chinese combat drones
Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), also known as combat drones, exist in China.
The country has several UCAV models in service including the CH-3, CH-4 as well as the Wing Loong 1 and 2.
Many countries seeking armed drone capability without the capacity to develop UCAVs domestically have turned to China.
Chinese-made drones have been used to combat extremism outside of China, but the Chinese military has avoided conducting lethal strikes themselves.
Drone use in China
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is in charge of domestic drone use.
Flying a drone for personal or commercial use is legal in China, but there are rules and regulations that must be followed.
Because the rules can change often, locals are encouraged to check the aviation authority’s website before they fly each time.
The main rule is you must register your drone with CAAC if it weighs more than 250 grams (half a pound).
So, unless the drone is as light as a feather, it needs to be registered.
Other main rules and regulations in China include:
- Avoiding no-fly zones (there’s a map here)
- Flying below the altitude limit of 120 meters (394 feet)
- Keeping the aircraft in your line of sight
- No flying at night, in densely populated areas, or where there are public gatherings
- No transporting items (unless approved for commercial use)
- Having third-party liability insurance.
Chinese drone operators are advised to keep away from sensitive areas including airports, military areas and power plants.
Drone users also need to follow any local or provincial laws in China. While local regulations can be vague, Sichuan province has issued local legislation and published restrictive fly zones following some disruptive events.
See also: List of Chinese provinces
Registering a drone in China
As mentioned, locals with drones weighing more than 250 grams need to register their details with CAAC.
This includes personal details such as ID and phone number, as well as details about the drone and what it’s being used for.
Foreigners who want to fly a drone in China are subject to the same requirements.
If you’re bringing one into China, make sure you familiarize yourself with the airline’s policies including carrying batteries.
Commercial Chinese drones
Chinese organizations need a license from the authorities to fly a commercial drone.
But personal drone operators also need a license if their aircraft weighs more than 7 kilograms (15 pounds).
All drones weighing over 116 kilograms (256 pounds) require a pilot’s license and UAV certificate.
Tech giants Alibaba and JD.com are leading the way when it comes to product delivery by drone.
While delivery routes are limited and the companies are still experimenting, there’s massive potential for growth.
Since 2016, JD has trialed delivery to rural and remote areas, including sending crucial medical supplies.
In 2020, JD drones sprayed disinfectant as part of COVID-19 relief.
Ele.me, a food delivery app owned by Alibaba, announced its first authorized delivery routes in Shanghai in 2018.
The routes aren’t human-free, however, with a worker on the receiving end distributing the food to the customers’ addresses.
Drones for surveillance and emergencies
Drones in China are increasingly being used for surveillance and emergencies.
For example, in June 2021 a herd of elephants migrated away from their nature reserve in Yunnan province.
The Chinese authorities were able to follow the animals with a drone to track their movements and warn villagers in advance.
This video shows some pretty cool drone camera footage of the event.
About 1 minute 40 seconds into the video, you’ll see the authorities launch the drone.
Chinese drone technology is developing rapidly
There are big innovations in Chinese drone software.
Shenzhen-based AirDwing works with DJI and other drone companies, offering cloud-based tools to make managing an entire fleet of drones easier.
In the southern city of Guangzhou, a multi-rotor drone carrying biological samples recently took off from a hospital to see how it fared against road transport.
With its highest speed of 50 km (20 mi) per hour, the drone spent 10 minutes completing the delivery, far less than the 30 minutes it takes with a vehicle in typical traffic.
The drone was equipped with a specimen carton for cold chain logistics to ensure sample safety, and the delivery was free of human contact.
And, China’s largest food delivery platform, Meituan, recently raised nearly $10 billion to expand its drone and driverless delivery capability.
Drone delivery challenges
Commercial drone development is restrained by air traffic management due to safety concerns.
China’s authorized delivery routes are subject to strict approval a day in advance, as well as on the day itself.
Joint participation from government, industry and individual companies is needed to formulate rules and policies if things like drone food delivery are to reach mass scale.
Another limitation for product delivery is the battery issue. Drones can only work for so long before needing to be recharged.
However, this should improve over time.
How do you say drone in Chinese?
I couldn’t finish this article without asking the obvious – how do you say ‘drone’ in Chinese?
It’s “wú rén jī” or in Chinese characters, 无人机 .
The first two words (wú rén) mean ‘unmanned’ or ‘uninhabited’ while the third word (jī) means machine.
It’s a pretty clever translation!
The sky’s the limit
Chinese drones and the technology driving the industry will keep getting better.
And, hopefully, regulators find a way to make it all work.
It’s not a long stretch to imagine a world where fast food drive-through is obsolete and your burger is delivered by a tiny aircraft instead.
As the saying goes, the sky is the limit.
I hope you liked my article about Chinese drones. Keeping with the theme of tech, you might also like the one I wrote about Chinese mobile apps.
Or, check out the video below of the Great Wall of China shot in 4K with DJI Phantom 4. Enjoy!