The technology for drone manufacturing has become more and more mature. The latest drones are highly flexible, have strong anti-interference measures and security for risky missions. Drones are mainly used in aerial photography, agriculture, forestry, powerline inspections, logistics and supply chains, as well as firefighting. It has also led to a surge in drone purchases. Moreover, drone manufacturers have had great success in exporting their drones worldwide.
According to the data acquired from the “Chinese Civil Aviation Pilot Development Annual Report” and “Civil Aviation Industry Development Statistical Report”, the number of drone pilot licenses has experienced continuous growth even in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic. Drone flight hours also saw an increase from 2018 when drone development began to scale up.
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry in mainland China has experienced three stages of development, including the introduction, slow development, and boom phase. The first stage began in 1980 and continued until 2006. The most important change in the UAV industry is from military to civil usage. At the time, technology and industry were in their infancy. As a result, soft and hard devices equipped on drones had higher costs. The second stage lasted from 2007 to 2015. The demand for drones from the downstream industry began to increase. The civil UAV market was small and many newly established companies competed against one another. At the same time, technological research and development, as well as product functionality, had substantially improved. The third stage began in 2016. Individual consumers have rapidly increased, bringing huge profits to the UAV industry. On the other hand, industrial drones are in the process of differentiating their application fields. Fields such as agriculture and forestry, powerline inspections, as well as logistics and distribution all show promise and have attracted more investors to the market.
Current Situation and Policies
So far, the UAV industry in mainland China is mainly centralized in the eastern and south-central areas. South China has also become a core area due to its advantageous industrial cluster, mature manufacturing, logistics, and components industry. As a result, enterprises in southern China take the lead. Especially Shenzhen, which is the leading region of UAV technology and services.
Whilst the market is growing, the government has also introduced policies to manage drones more efficiently and systemically in the aviation sector. In November 2016, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China released the 13th Five-Year Plan which aimed to develop drones for industrial usage. In December 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology published the “Guidance toward How to Improve and Regulate the Development of Civil UAV Manufacturing Industry”, this policy was aimed at strengthening the safety management of drones such as promoting the establishment of management platforms and advocating technological innovation to expand services and application areas.
Furthermore, although the overall UAV market has become more mature, the industrial drone is still in its fast-growing period and its market share has experienced a continuous increase, from 34.88% in 2019 to 45.61% in 2021. This was thanks to the continuous development in drone technology, strong support from government policies, and large-scale investments into the market. As such, the industrial drone industry has a promising future.
In mainland China, UAVs are usually used in law enforcement, environmental surveillance, emergency management, agriculture and forestry, powerline, oil and gas inspections, logistics and distribution, geographical mapping, and training businesses.
The drone is specialized in monitoring airspace with a wideangle lens, has clear low-altitude images, high flight flexibility and maneuverability, as well as convenient low-altitude communications. Therefore, it can rapidly reach crime scenes and follow targets, as well as aerially monitor to assist public agencies to judge and make proper decisions. Drone missions typically include criminal investigation, traffic management, and daily patrol inspections.
Regarding criminal investigations, a drone can take photos of target areas, collect ground information, as well as use thermal imaging and infrared devices to track and lock suspects, which can increase the efficiency and success rate. In addition, for traffic accidents, a drone can bypass traffic jams and quickly arrive at the scene to take photos. Also, drones can be equipped with loudspeakers for large-scale commands. Moreover, drones can implement daily patrol inspections in specific areas to save expenses on human resources and equipment.
Drones can perform real-time monitoring and real-time sampling, due to their high performance and reliability in environmental surveillance. Missions include atmosphere monitoring, water conservancy surveillance, and collecting evidence of environmental damage. Water conservation can be divided into water sampling and sewage surveillance, which are used to provide early warnings of natural disasters such as typhoons or floods.
For atmospheric monitoring, a drone can be equipped with devices to conduct three-dimensional monitoring on high-altitude air pollution. Additionally, environmental law enforcement officials can utilize drones to carry out Precise Point Positioning (PPP), and high-altitude aerial photography. As a result, drones can easily identify damage and collect evidence at a scene.
In terms of water sampling, UAVs can be equipped with water withdrawing features combined with ground station systems to execute missions such as sample collection in areas that humans cannot access or approach. As such, it is highly efficient as well as low in risk and costs.
In addition, drones can be equipped with an infrared thermal imaging system to supervise the sewage disposal situation across a wide area. Not only can it oversee from the air but it can also conduct close observations in places that environmental personnel cannot reach.
Climate change has led to more frequent extreme weather in recent years. It poses a strong threat to the economy, environment, and social security of mainland China. To manage these sudden situations, the government has put more emphasis on disaster prevention. Yan Jie Sun, the Administration Director of Aero-Starloop, told Asian Sky Media that drones are low-cost, have high security and intelligence. Compared with manpower and helicopters, a drone can provide better disaster relief in emergencies.
UAVs are low cost, easily maintained, have a comprehensive view, and are easy to use in conditions such as urban firefighting and rescue, forest fires and disaster prevention, as well as natural disaster rescue.
As for urban firefighting and rescue, a drone equipped with a visible light and a thermographic camera can completely display the scene as well as penetrate smoke and buildings to acquire temperature distribution. Aside from assisting firefighters to determine the ignition point and areas of high temperature, it also allows rear commanders and logistic forces to handle real-time information and take corresponding measures through a wireless network.
In terms of forest firefighting, a drone can automatically patrol large forest areas and reach places that humans cannot easily go to, enhancing patrol efficiency. When a fire disaster happens, a drone can turn the process from passive detection to active tracking. The thermographic camera on a drone can quickly detect and assist firefighters to extinguish a fire. Afterward, a drone can patrol the area to prevent disasters from happening again.
When natural disasters occur, transportation in affected areas will be seriously damaged. A drone can break through ground limitations to quickly arrive and execute search and rescue operations. Moreover, a drone can bring an emergency communication base station, hover above the disaster area, and provide a wireless communication system to those affected. Regarding postdisaster reconstruction, drones can spray disinfecting pesticides. It can also evaluate and decide on resolution policies for fuel, coal mines, and mud leaks.
From 20th to 21st July 2021, “Wing Loong” -2H, manufactured by AVIC, conducted reconnaissance and relay missions over Henan province to provide China Mobile Communications Corporation (CMCC) public network communications to those disaster victims affected by heavy rainfall. According to statistical data from AVIC, “Wing Loong” aerial communications platform can respond to 50 square kilometers of mobile public network communications as well as establishing an audio and video internet network covering 15,000 square kilometers.
Agriculture & Forestry
Agriculture has a long history in China. As village labor gradually shifts to cities, agriculture operations are also facing the need to change. At the same time, cases of poisoning resulting from pesticides are countless. Each year there are over 100,000 people poisoned by pesticides, with a death rate of around 20%. Under such circumstances, UAVs have boomed in popularity. Hui Sun, assistant of the General Manager of Beidahuang General Aviation, said in an interview with Asian Sky Media that: “Drones have indeed changed the way traditional pesticide and fertilizers are used. Compared to using traditional machinery and manual labor, drones can save on manpower and time, thereby increasing efficiency.”
Furthermore, according to Sen Mei, Co-Founder of Woozoom, compared to traditional helicopters that need pilots, the number of parts a drone needs is 60% less. Also, the parts a directional system needs have decreased by 90%. Reducing these parts can help lower the failure rate and increase the effectiveness of UAV applications in agriculture.
UAVs are mainly used in agriculture spraying and crop monitoring. According to Hui Sun, so far Beidahuang General Aviation owns more than ten drones which are mainly used in agricultural spraying. Regarding spraying, workers need to plan the route according to the topography of the terrain and pesticide spraying requirements. For crop monitoring, drones equipped with highresolution digital cameras, spectrometers, and thermal-infrared sensors can take high-definition photos to examine the state of the crops.
Although theoretically a drone has stronger flexibility and lower labor costs compared to a manned helicopter, there still are some limitations. Hui Sun said: “Due to the limitations on electricity and load, a single drone cannot spray a large area by itself.” To do the same things as a traditional helicopter, there needs to be more than one drone and drone pilot. Also, the UAMs need to change batteries and add pesticides frequently.
Therefore, according to the current situation, Hui Sun suggests that drones in agriculture should be used in small croplands in villages and small areas in cities to solve the insufficient labor force in a village and very high labor costs in cities. Although drone applications still face some current limitations, Hui Sun still holds a positive attitude toward the future development of UAVs. As he said in an interview: “With the increase in UAVs commercial capacity, large scale agricultural and forestry operations are possible.”
Powerline and Oil / Gas Inspections
Asian Sky Media also interviewed Yi Wu, the Deputy General Manager of the Drone Business Department in State Grid GA. State Grid GA mainly uses medium and large fixed-wing UAVs to implement power transmission line surveillance, disaster monitoring inspections, and laser scanning. Yi Wu told us: “The drones of State Grid GA are expected to fly 180,000 km annually. In areas with complex terrain, drones play an important role to increase electrical grid inspection efficiency as well as elevate power grid construction, operation, and management standard.”
Moreover, Hua Wei Meng, Drone Operation Manager of China Southern Power Grid mentioned in an interview with Asian Sky Media: “UAVs and other intelligent equipment are now the main tools for daily powerline inspections. So far, we have completed drone inspections of around 80,000 km of overhead lines and 500,000 towers, as well as automatic surveillance route planning for pipeline monitoring in the no-fly-zone.” UAV’s automatic inspection technology is applied in the production practice, which greatly enhances equipment inspection efficiency and results in a change in production.
Hua Wei Meng believes that drones can reduce the workload of operation and maintenance employees. It can also effectively improve the working environment and intensity of inspectors as well as increase employees’ happiness index. Simultaneously, utilizing drones can enhance the lifecycle management standard and improve the health of equipment.
Yi Wu also mentioned that compared with manned helicopters, drones are more flexible, convenient, low cost, widespread, and easy to use. On the other hand, there are still some limitations to using drones. UAVs are influenced by factors like endurance, payload, and communication, and have limited operational capabilities. Drones cannot be equipped with heavy loads, nor can they adapt to extreme situations such as extreme temperature, high altitudes, and places with no signal. Compared to helicopters, drones overall operate with lower efficiency.
Regarding future developments, Yi Wu still holds a positive attitude. In an interview, he said: “In the future, UAVs will gradually replace manual labor ground inspections in powerline inspections. In particular, the multi-rotor drone will be a tool for power grid inspections, whilst the medium and large drones will take the lead in power grid emergency response and pipeline inspections.”
Compared with power transmission pipelines, which are constructed above ground, oil and gas pipelines are located underground. Similar to the power grid layout, oil and gas pipelines span a large area and extend for thousands of miles. In areas with complex terrain and adverse environments, drones can prevent dangerous cases such as leakage or the theft of oil and gas. Operations include checking the damage and deterioration of facilities, detecting oil and gas leakage, identification of flammable and explosive substances, as well as investigating landforms along the pipeline.
Logistics and Supply Chain
Logistics is a management system using calculations and strategic planning to control raw material, intermediary goods, terminal products, and information amongst different warehouses. Through independent networks or joint ventures, express delivery is a new way that logistics companies send documents or packages authorized by their clients to the receivers rapidly and safely.
Drones for logistics have fast running speed, low operating costs, are not limited by terrain, and are suitable for small batches and high-frequency distribution. Compared to the high cost of constructing traditional logistics networks covering villages and remote regions, the distribution network created by drones can dramatically reduce logistic costs. In metropolitan areas, express services are more mature. In addition, regulations toward low-altitude flying equipment are stricter in the city. Therefore, drones are more suitable to provide express deliveries in remote areas.
Topographical surveying refers to the means of providing geographical information for national economic and social development, as well as to governmental departments and mapping institutions. Surveying has affected land planning, urban construction, engineering construction, and navigation applications. As the technology for aerial photography has become more mature, drones have achieved great recognition in geographical surveying. They are mainly used in engineering construction, land approvals, and real estate registrations, etc.
Engineering uses include volume measurement, tunnel pipeline inspections, highway and bridge inspections. Drones are equipped with high-resolution cameras and LIDAR to collect data for creating a 3D model. Through aerial photography, drones can acquire three-dimensional data and combine them with side view images to rapidly construct models for assisting with issues such as land approvals in villages. In addition, utilizing high-precision photographic mapping of drones can be used to obtain the height of a building. As a result, it can realize the digitization, precision, and real-time implementation of real estate registration and management.
Due to the rapid development of the civil UAV industry, the demand for drone pilots is growing day by day. However, insufficient drone pilots are a key factor restricting the growth of the UAV industry. The government and drone businesses have discovered the possibility of developing specialized training. As a result, UAV training has gradually scaled up.
In terms of drone OEMs, DJI, headquartered in Shenzhen, accounts for 80% of the global drone industry market. It established Huifei Unmanned Aerial Systems Training Center in June 2016. It also took the UTC training system provided by China Air Transport Association General Aviation and China Adult Education Association. The training center offers courses on agriculture, geographical surveying and emergency security, and other fields. Additionally, aviation universities in mainland China have offered UAV courses to develop senior talents for the civil UAV industry.
FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS AND FORECAST
The development of UAVs in mainland China has brought substantial change and innovation to the aviation system. Yan Jie Sun, the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) of Aero-Starloop mentioned in an interview with Asian Sky Media: “Using UAVs indeed makes it more convenient in fields such as environmental monitoring and intelligent firefighting which previously used manpower or traditional helicopters to execute missions.” Even so, there are still some barriers that need to be broken for UAVs future development.
On the one hand, the UAV industry still has some gaps in supervision policies and relative regulations such as in the standard system, airworthiness regulations, and UAV flight management. The lack of legislation has led to uneven conditions of UAV applications in the market. Moreover, the endurance deficiency also places a hurdle on the development of the UAV market. Yan Jie Sun told Asian Sky Media: “Compared to a traditional helicopter, drones have lower load capacities, poorer wind resistance, and shorter flight duration.” So far, the endurance time of a drone is between 20 to 30 minutes. Factors that influence endurance include wind strength, weight, airplane mode, and hardware consumption. Compared with consumer drones, industrial UAVs require greater endurance as they need to be equipped with exterior equipment to execute missions.
Although drone applications have some existing limitations at the moment, complete automatic flying might happen in the future due to the increase of ground control stations and continuous innovations of drone hardware and software technology, which drastically reduces production costs, manpower, and time costs required by UAV pilots. Apart from that, the establishment of upstream, midstream and downstream industrial chains of the UAV industry is relatively complete. Supplemented by resources of supporting industries and the government’s vigorous promotion of UAV, will ensure the UAV industry will further grow in the future.
Yan Jie Sun mentioned in an interview: “With the development of UAV flight control and power technology, wind resistance, payload capability, and hang time will increase dramatically. In the future, it will gradually replace manned aircraft in environmental monitoring and intelligent firefighting.” Although there are still some technological and policy obstacles regarding the industrial UAV market, the demand for industrial UAVs will increase drastically once the endurance technology has a major breakthrough. Overall, the future development of the UAV market will be even more prosperous.
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