When it comes to drones, China is no copycat. It is a world leader in drone manufacturing and emerging as a world-class innovator.
When an explosion devastated parts of China's Tianjin port in August, one insurance company turned to Chinese-made drones to help analyse the rubble and estimate the damages. Comparing satellite photographs of the site ahead of the blast with high-resolution images taken later by drones, the People's Insurance Company of China was able to determine how many vehicles had been destroyed and total the losses for German automaker Volkswagen.
"There was nothing left but a big hole in the ground," says Lin Changqing, a deputy general manager at PICC Property and Casualty. With the government maintaining a one kilometer exclusion zone around the site, an accurate loss assessment would have been "mission impossible" without unpiloted aircraft, he adds.
Chinese drone developers are racking up an impressive list of aerial solutions for a growing variety of demands, from police surveillance to agricultural mapping and traffic management. Already well established as a world leader in drone manufacturing, China is slowly emerging as a world-class innovator, not just a duplicator of foreign designs.
"People have been calling China 'copycats' for a long time. That's still true in a lot of industries, but when it comes to drones, China is no copycat," says Joe Tymczyszyn, a senior adviser and former executive director for the US-China Aviation Cooperation Program. Chinese firm SZ DJI Technology Co, the world's biggest consumer drone-maker, opened its first flagship retail store in Shenzhen this month. The company claims 70% of the commercial market worldwide and a larger portion of the consumer market.
Others are lining up to replicate SZ's success. Wuhan Airbird UAV Co Ltd designs and maintains drones for government, corporate and private users. But its traffic monitoring micro-drone — so small it can be launched from a car window — is proving a hit with the car-driving public. The privately-held manufacturer expects revenue to rise 50% this year to 18 million yuan, and employs about 45 engineers and mechanics.
Research firm Taibo Intelligence forecasts Chinese drone industry revenue to more than double to 2.5 billion yuan this year and grow by as much as eight fold to 20 billion yuan by 2020. With revenues booming and participants rushing to stake out territory, regulators are trying to rein in the exuberance and set some ground-rules for the industry.
Many of China's drone pioneers can be found at Beihang University, where students are encouraged to commercialise their research. The school has attracted the attention of Innovation Works, which invested 4 million yuan in a start-up helmed by a student, a 25-year-old satellite navigation major.
Other investors include Intel Corp, which in August invested more than $60 million in Yuneec International, one of China's biggest electric drone makers.
"Twenty years ago we used bicycles to measure the size of big farm fields," says PICC chief of disaster research Guo Qing, "A drone can now do the job in five minutes."