Drones: Putting China’s economy on autopilot

The global drone market has been rapidly expanding, attracting loyal consumers while integrating itself as an emerging pillar in the technological sector. One country that has seen an extremely rapid rise in drone growth in terms of usage and production is China. Already heavily invested in producing intermediate parts for other aerospace vehicles, the Chinese are starting to prove themselves a drone-manufacturing powerhouse — and eager consumer base.

As an up-and-coming sector of technological innovation, in which China invested 1.3 trillion yuan in 2015 (comprising over 2 percent of the GDP), drones are set to bolster the growth of the Chinese economy in the future.

Drones and economic growth

Drones will continue to support economic growth in China because it is a pillar of technological innovation, something China needs to drive its economy (as opposed to simply mass manufacturing disposable goods). “Indigenous innovation” campaigns and programs targeting innovation in the technological sector have been launched by both governmental and private entities.

Investors in the U.S. are already seeing the potential for economic growth in this Chinese market, with Intel investing $60 million in Chinese manufacturer Yuneec in August 2015 (with another $67 million in eight other Chinese drone companies that followed). CBInsights reported investments totaling nearly $500 million in the drone sector alone in 2015.

Additionally, ZDNet reports drone exports totaling more than US$413 million, with projections slated to only keep increasing. This embrace of technological innovation has allowed drones to become an ever-growing part of technological R&D in China, making it inevitable for drones to become a significant part of increasing China’s GDP in the future.

Governmental support

By enthusiastically embracing technology changes in its systems, the Chinese government is one of the primary reasons drones have been integrated into Chinese society so well. Instead of outright litigation or banning of new technologies, the Chinese government has chosen to regulate them. With drones, China’s Civil Aviation Authority released a series of regulations in early 2016, categorizing UAVs into seven classes based on weight and size and setting rules about flying near populated regions.

Innovations in drones seek to bring a high-tech approach to bolster the country’s lagging agricultural economy.

The widespread use of drones by both Chinese civilians and the government will help contribute to economic growth. The Chinese government is using drones for a variety of tasks, from the municipal level all the way to the national stage. Chinese individuals are using drones for aerial photography and construction/real estate purposes, among others, while Chinese companies use drones to protect oil/gas interests and help boost China’s agricultural sector.

Government services

Municipal level

Government services on a local level will greatly improve because of the Chinese integration of drones at the village and municipal level. Emergency medical services and public safety mandates will see the most improvement, something that is already happening at the local level.

In 2014, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake struck Ludian County, located in the Yunnan Province in southwest China. This earthquake leveled more than 12,000 homes, killing more than 600 people and displacing another 200,000.

Because of the dense rubble and vegetation in the mountainous area, the China Association for Disaster and Emergency Response Medicine (CADERM) teamed with private industry drone pilots to rapidly search for survivors and assess the damage. These UAVs provided responders with a bird’s eye view of the damage, allowing them to prioritize their search and rescue efforts.

Used in the search and rescue EMS context, the local Chinese government, led in their efforts by CADERM, was specifically able to “map and monitor a quake-formed lake that threatened to flood areas downstream,” said PLA Reserve Engineer Xu Xiaokun, which resulted in the proper allocation of time and resources to help save lives.

Drones are also being used at the municipal level by Chinese police agencies. Lin Daolin, deputy director of the Police Aviation Administration Office, reports that more than 300 police drones are in use in 25 provinces, helping to patrol areas that are difficult for police officers to access. For example, Huidong County, in Guangdong province in southeast China, was a major production base for the date-rape drug ketamine, and at one time contributed one-third of the drug’s circulation in all of China.

However, local Chinese police forces have used drones to provide surveillance data and actionable intelligence for raids on drug labs. With more than 1,000 police officers involved, the raid not only yielded a large number of drugs and drug producers, but also local governmental officials who benefited from the drug trade. This is just one example of how the Chinese are using drones to protect their local municipalities.

Provincial level

At the provincial level, China’s use of drones has allowed it to supplement and bolster its pollutant monitoring services and border patrol units. While not as localized as municipal services and not implemented on a nationwide basis that a PRC-wide mandate would carry, the provincial implementation of drones has helped Chinese provincial governments immensely, providing key data and surveillance monitoring for areas that are not normally accessible.

The Chinese are also using drones at the provincial level to monitor and help enforce wildlife protection laws. In Hunchun in the Jilin province, located in northeast China, the Jilin Forestry Department is investing 12.8 billion yuan (US$2 billion) to monitor the welfare of the endangered Siberian tigers and Amur leopards. With more than 4,000 square kilometers to monitor, this role is typically not successfully filled by wildlife officers working in the region.

However, the integration of drones will allow wildlife officers to ensure that illegal poaching does not occur, while ensuring that ground conflicts between humans and animals do not result in any harm. These drones have a potential to revolutionize the protection of China’s wildlife, as well as bolster China’s drone economy.

Investors in the U.S. are already seeing the potential for economic growth in this Chinese market.

Border patrol has been another focus of the Chinese provincial drone community. Chinese border patrol units in Tibet, Xinjiang and Yunnan are using drones to provide aerial surveillance. Difficult to cover with only personnel, and with satellite coverage being funneled for national use, border patrol units have faced difficulties in border monitoring.

However, drones, particularly those fitted with electro-optic devices to detect object presence and border range, are allowing these units to function at a higher standard. Additionally, these drones can function year-round on a 24/7 basis, providing border patrol units with the ability to combat both drug trafficking and illegal crossings along China’s borders.

National level

Nationwide governmental services have always varied in China, with different funding parameters allotted to different regions. However, the use of drones changes these parameters, allowing authorities the ability to see and monitor areas that were difficult to access before (with these roles specifically encompassing environmental pollution monitoring and Chinese military use).

Pollution is an immense problem in China (it has the most pollutant-filled skies in the world). China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection has mandated the use of drones to monitor environmental pollutants in China. These UAVs, armed with high-resolution cameras, provide authorities with the ability to monitor suspect factories and workshops that are excessively contributing to China’s pollution problem. Typically, the Chinese have been using ground inspections and satellite remote sensing.

However, because these resources are very localized and national, the Chinese have a gap at the provincial level. Drones help fill that gap, ensuring that companies are fully complying with China’s environmental protection laws. Provinces participating in these provincial-level programs include Shaanxi (northeast China), Shandong (northeast China) and Henan (central China). In fact, the Ministry of Environmental Protection released preliminary results implicating more than 25 percent of 254 factories reviewed as flagged for further inspections because of environmental infractions.

The Chinese are starting to prove themselves a drone-manufacturing powerhouse.

The Chinese military has been integrating the use of unmanned aerial vehicles into its military capability at a very high rate. Chinese drones such as the Wing Loong drone of the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group and the CH-3 and CH-4B of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corp. have been developed as offensive weapons, with the ability to launch missiles and bombs while collecting intelligence for further military movement.

China’s willingness to adopt this technology at such a fast pace is a testament to the Chinese desire to integrate technology as fast as it can develop it. Additionally, with Chinese company EHang debuting a passenger drone, speculation is rampant about the Chinese military’s use of EHang’s 184 to transport soldiers to and from the battlefield.

Services sector

China has also been heavily using drones in the services sector, specifically in aerial photography, construction/real estate and deliveries.

Aerial photography and filmmaking

Drones are being used by the Chinese for aerial photography and filmmaking. Multiple Chinese wedding photographers’ websites tout the ability for couples to have their pictures taken by drone, allowing for a wider photo, incomparable with those taken at ground level. These photographers’ relatively small investment has enabled them to take shots only capable with extremely expensive equipment, while harnessing the power of the booming Chinese wedding industry.

Additionally, photographers are using drones to create spectacular photo displays seen worldwide, such as Hong Kong-based photographer Andy Yueng, whose pictures of 100 of China’s megastructures won the International Photograph Awards One Shot Competition.

Construction and real estate

Drones in China have also been used for construction and real estate services. DroneBase, a startup funded by leading drone manufacturer DJI, helps rent out drones and their pilots. DJI reports that typical requests for users involve “real estate promotion, construction, mapping, and terrain modeling.” This is simply because the drone’s aerial view far supersedes the costs and liabilities associated with committing individuals to the same task. Additionally, the drone can cover areas farther and higher up than a normal surveyor.

Large-scale industries

The Chinese large-scale industries of oil and gas, along with agriculture, are also benefiting from the use of drones.

Oil and Gas

Drones are being used by the Chinese to exercise control over oil/gas resources. China is extremely hungry for energy resources, and its search for them has increasingly led it to rural areas within China and Africa. Chinese companies have used drones for surveying areas for potential pipelines, particularly in rural China, where the local areas are not easily accessible.

Additionally, the Chinese government is using drones to expand its command and control of resources in Nigeria, where much of China’s oil/gas supply lies. Drones allow the Chinese to be present in areas that would be hard to reach otherwise, allowing them to secure and protect their energy resources.


Drones that specifically target the agricultural industry are also being developed and unveiled by Chinese companies. Leading manufacturer DJI has unveiled a crop-sprayer drone, designed to spray 2.6 gallons of pesticides over 7-10 acres of farmland per hour. XAircraft Technology is among more than 70 companies trying to introduce drone technology to the Chinese agricultural market.

With the Chinese government encouraging innovation in the agricultural drone market through the Planning for Natural Agricultural Sustainable Development authority, the Chinese are tapping into the more than 120 million hectares of available farmland to provide a market for drones, with millions being spent by the Chinese to support drone development. With agriculture being the previous backbone of the Chinese economy, innovations in drones seek to bring a high-tech approach to bolster the country’s lagging agricultural economy.


The Chinese ability to implement drones so seamlessly into their everyday lives points out both the Chinese government’s willingness to embrace new technology and the Chinese population’s new-found wealth to afford this sort of technology.

With China’s fascination with technology at its infancy, the potential for technological growth and innovation is huge. The drone market is one that is currently somewhat niche, but if used correctly, will set the Chinese economy’s stage for years to come.

The Chinese are currently among the world’s leading manufacturers, developers and consumers of drones. Who’s to say that home-grown innovations in smartphones and solar-powered vehicles, as well as other innovations stemming from involvement in drones, aren’t next?