China restricts exports of 'high performance' drones as national security fears heighten

National security move appears aimed at protecting key technologies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 2015, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 5:01pm

China will restrict exports of high-performance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones, from the middle of next month for reasons of national security, according to China’s state-run media.

The move aims to limit exports of military rather than commercial drones, industry insiders told Xinhua news agency and thepaper.cn. 

The Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Customs issued a joint announcement Friday night urging manufacturers interested in exporting them to apply early for the proper certification. 

This will now be required for drones that are capable of flying in gusty winds, that can fly for periods of one hour or longer, as well as those that can hover at heights of 15,420 metres, it said. 

The regulation, due to take effect August 15, did not mention the size of the military drones being targeted. These can range in wingspan from less than half a metre to several metres wide.

To obtain approval, domestic drone makers will now have to offer the product’s technical specification, provide the name of the end user, and disclose its intended purpose.

The ban comes only a few weeks after Pakistan claims to have shot down a spy drone owned by the Indian military that is suspected of being made by a Chinese company.

According to Chinese news reports, domestically produced military drones including the CH-3 and CH-4, as well as the Wing Loong drone made by Chengdu Airplane Design Research Institute, have been exported to countries like Pakistan and Myanmar.

The Wing Loong can reportedly reach altitudes above 5,000 metres, fly for 20 hours and carry loads of up to 200 kg. Meanwhile, the People’s Liberation Army has touted the CH-4 as being superior to the US-made MQ-1 Predator.

Chinese authorities did not elaborate on their national security fears, but the crackdown on exports appears to be aimed at protecting key technologies and making sure they do not fall into the wrong hands. 

"The ban is targeting drones not designed for commercial use, and will protect key technologies of Chinese companies," Shao Jianhuo, vice-president of DJI Technology, was quoted as saying by Xinhua. 

"It was a surprise decision for the industry, but it really makes sense in terms of national security and the healthy growth of the industry," Shao said.

READ MORE: World’s largest drone producer DJI plots open platform as China eyes customised drones

DJI controls 70 per cent of the global market for civilian drones. With some pundits valuing the company at US$10 billion, it now ranks as one of the world’s most valuable start-ups.

China has been bolstering its military capabilities with a greater sense of urgency since President Xi Jinping ascended to power in late 2012, and it has been quick to join other world powers in terms of its military drone development. 

The country successfully tested its first jet-powered stealth drone in November 2013, making it the fourth country to implement the technology after the Britain, France and the United States.

The Lijian is powered by a single jet engine and is the result of a partnership between Chinese aerospace firms Shenyang Aviation and Hongdu Aviation Industry. 

Lijian, which means “sharp sword” in Putonghua, sports the same "flying-wing" design as America’s X-78B drone prototype.

READ MORE: Made in Shenzhen, funded in Hong Kong: Chinese drone start-ups told to look south

Military experts say the drone can help China strengthen its intelligence-gathering capability in the East China and South China seas, where Beijing is dealing with several tense territorial disputes with its Asian neighbours. 

According to the newly laid out rules, restrictions will also be placed on supercomputers that are capable of performing more than 8 teraflops, or 8 trillion floating point operations per second.

This is the second time in the last month China has imposed export restrictions on high-end drones. 

From July 1, those made in China with a flying range equal to or above 300 kilometres, or with a load-carrying capacity above 20 litres, have also been subject to limitations before they can be approved for export overseas.

This initial list of restrictions was announced at the end of June by the Ministry of Commerce and the General Administration of Customs, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defence.

Most of the world’s commercial drones are made in Shenzhen in Guangdong province, and 95 per cent of those produced in the city come from DJI.

Manufacturers in the city sent 160,000 such drones overseas from January to May, worth a total of 750 million yuan (US$120.81 million). This marks a 69-fold increase in volume from the year-earlier period, media reports show.

None of DJI’s products will be banned, the company said after a review of the standards, according to Xinhua. 

It was unclear whether other big commercial drone makers like Zero Tech, Ehang Tech or XAircraft would be affected, but military drone manufacturers like the Aviation Industry Corporation of China would certainly be a target.

Some Chinese drone makers said they have already prepared for the rule change as many countries have started imposing similar restrictions.

“We have seen many countries introduce their own rules to ban drones for commercial or civilian use, and some have been much stricter than China, for example the US and Switzerland,” Zhang Jie, the CEO of Shenzhen-based G-UAV Intelligent Technologies, told the South China Moring Post.

“We have prepared well for this, because most domestic drone makers are export-oriented.” 

She said her company invested heavily early this year to develop the control system of its high-end drones. It can now load the coordinates of each country’s no-fly zones to ensure the drones stay within the legal zones.

Jie said this has extended their application in such areas as maritime security and weather forecasting.

READ MORE: Amazon’s grand plan: Clear worldwide airspace over cities for high-speed delivery drones

In an age when data privacy and protection is a growing concern, she said it is imperative to have the drones’ data fingerprint-encrypted, and that regulatory clampdowns are positive in terms of overall security.

“These new restrictions on drones actually spur Chinese drone makers to invest in new technology and innovation,” she said. 

Regulations proposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in February also seek to impose a number of strict curbs, for example requiring users to be 17 or over and have passed a special aeronautics test.

If these are implemented, drones would only be permitted to be flown during daylight hours, and must remain within an operator's line of sight at all times. 

The drones would also have to stay under 25 kilogrammes, fly below 152m (500 feet) and have a maximum flying speed of less than 160 km per hour (100 mph).