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Beyond hovering camera: Chinese drone makers explore new business battleground

By Jiang Jie (People's Daily Online)    15:56, June 15, 2018

With its propellers churning the spring air, a drone hums through the hustle and bustle of a once earthquake-stricken Beichuan county in southwest China’s Sichuan province, scanning newly-erected buildings with a tilted camera. Nobody stops to look at it, but the white genie is guarding the region, preventing the disaster that took thousands of lives ten years ago from hitting again.

With its collected images, a 3D city model was built to undergo earthquake simulation, so as to pinpoint the region’s most vulnerable areas in the new earthquake prevention system, jointly set up by several institutes including China Earthquake Administration, Tsinghua University and Chengdu JOUAV Dapeng Tech Co, whose CW-30 “Dapeng” UAV platform served as the white genie in the air this March.

(Photo courtesy of Chengdu JOUAV Dapeng Tech Co)

Like CW-30 “Dapeng,” industrial drones are taking off in China to stun the world with new functions beyond the age-old skills of plane surveying and pesticide sprinkling. Together with the commercial and military drones epitomized by DJI and CASC “rainbow” series, Chinese drone industry has witnessed skyrocketing growth.

According to IDC estimation, the civilian market for drones in China is expected to reach 60 billion yuan ($9.3 billion) by 2019, while the global market is projected at $25.9 billion by 2020, news.qq.com reported.

All the prosperity brings ecstasy as well as concerns for drone makers to contemplate on the long-existing question: who else needs drones and how to serve them?

The newer, the merrier

To Huang Guoqin, a marketing manager with the JOUAV Dapeng, the question has become more pressing after the company pioneered the nation’s first drone-based dropsonde meteorological observations this May in east China’s Anhui province, which China Meteorological Administration hailed as a landmark achievement to launch a new era of technology.

In addition to the March experiment, the company is also leading the nation’s pilot trial to use drones for highway network patrol, which was already tested in Shanghai, she revealed in an interview with People’s Daily at the opening of 9th UAV Show China 2018 on June 13.

(Photo courtesy of Chengdu JOUAV Dapeng Tech Co)

The three-day event was jointly organized by the China Center for Aerospace Science Technology International Communications and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems of China.

“Unlike commercial and military drones whose markets have provided them with a clear demand, the industrial-level drones are left in void. Both we and our customers are groping our way to find each other,” Huang said.

Su Yuran, a project manager with Beijing-based Efly Technology, enjoys his long and sometimes clueless contemplation over the who-is-next question, looking to expand the company’s leading position beyond oil pipeline patrol business.

“The more we think and the more people join the discussion of who is next, the more open companies and industries become. When more business want to try drones, we receive easier access to test our aircraft and technology,” Su told People’s Daily.

What came amid the welcoming businesses was ineligible drone companies, seeking to make profits in the disturbance, as the bulky industry did not have an access mechanism until recently.

The nation’s regulation on drone flight for commercial purpose only began to take effect on June 1. The same day, an online management system on drone operation permit was also launched to recognize drone makers with national certifications for the first time. Both measures are expected to help cleanse the industry for healthier development.

(Visitors look at drones on exhibition at UAV Show 2018 in Beijing on June 13. Photo: Jiang Jie/People's Daily Online)

From the world, to the world

“Chinese companies are creative and have strong executive power. Like ‘Dapeng,’ it may look crude but it is very durable. Each load change for different missions is a new test on the drone and all the tests under different occasions have proven our reliability. This is where we hold our advantage in international market,” Huang said.

Chinese companies no doubt prevail in drone manufacturing and application, whose products are exceptionally popular in developing countries where drone application rate remains low, but fall short in research and development for new function and loads, Su observed.

However, with the advancement of Chinese technology in other fields such as AI and 5G communication, Chinese drone makers are expected to catch up in new design to surprise the world.

Su, specifically, looks to develop tonnage-level freight drones, which will be beneficial to delivery industry. He also mulls to use the new technologies in the drone loads. “A drone can be more than a hovering camera. It will be exceptionally popular if it can also identify objects in its images and automatically track them down,” Su said with anticipation. 

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Jiang Jie, Bianji)

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