Civilian UAV Production as a Window to the PLA’s Unmanned Fleet

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 4

The V750 (or Z-5?) UAV

Representing a wider trend, one of China’s largest aerospace manufacturers, AVIC, recently announced, after a record 18.8 percent growth in 2011, it is increasing investment in an unmanned helicopter that will function in a range of both mundane civil applications as well as more critical military and police missions. Although the Chinese military has already incorporated some unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) into its arsenal, information on the PLA’s unmanned capabilities remains limited. However, it is possible to glean critical information about China’s future unmanned fleet by looking closer at its civilian UAV uses. The Chinese government has been forthright about its intentions to better exploit civilian ingenuity for its defense modernization and, in the UAV market, domestic defense manufacturers and specialized academic institutions are critical sources of UAV innovation of which the PLA is the ultimate benefactor.

The Current PLA UAV Fleet

The Chinese military has only a handful of UAV models in service. Out of the seven models listed by the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance 2011 as in active PLA service, about half are outdated and limited in capability. little is known about the other, more modern models. For example, two models in service, the ASN-105 and ASN-206, are based on technology dating back to the 1960s, with ranges of about 93 miles, max payloads of about 88 pounds and have to land by parachute recovery—according to the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) catalogue. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) is similarly limited in its UAV capabilities: the CH-1 Chang Hong reportedly was reverse engineered from 1950s era U.S. technology, the Chang Kong-1 target UAV was developed in the 1960s and the Harpy UAV was purchased from Israel in 1994.

The newer BZK-005 and BZK-006/W-6 models, while presumably much more capable, remain ambiguous platforms. Recent episodes have shed some light on these models, but have served to spark more questions than answers. In August 2011 pictures surfaced of a stealthy drone similar in appearance to a U.S. Reaper drone that had crashed in Hebei Province in North China. Some believed it to be the BZK-005, also known as  “Tianchi,” but little substantive information came out of this episode. Similarly, in December 2011 pictures posted on a Chinese website revealed a swept winged stealthy UAV known as “wind blade” that looked similar in appearance to the RQ-170 U.S. drone that crashed in Iran. Other than generating speculation about its potential uses or actual stealth capabilities, the pictures floating around Chinese discussion boards had limited value.

Direct knowledge of the PLA’s modern UAV capabilities and what their future fleet may look like remains undeniably limited. Yet, when one examines the array of UAVs currently on the open market in China, it becomes evident that there is a thriving state-supported industry and knowledge base, which is making its way back to the PLA.

The Marketization of the Defense and UAV Industries

In 2010 alone, fifty-two new drones designed by 70 military institutes were introduced to the market (China Daily, June 10, 2010). The ability to have such a UAV bazaar dates back to the marketization of the defense industry, which was a move by the Chinese government toward better using civilian knowledge for defense modernization. In 2005, China adopted a licensing system whereby the private sector was allowed to compete for research and production projects on weaponry and defense projects, though the state would retain ultimate control over the process [1]. After only a few years, this initiative seems to be quite successful.

China’s defense white paper published in 2011 notes that civilian enterprises now account for two-thirds of licensed entities researching and producing weapons and other defense goods. Furthermore, the Ministry of Defense has said “China is…in the initial stage of establishing a new system of defense-related science, technology and industry that features…a large military potential reserve among civilians.” It also seems as though the government will continue to push this civilian-military industrial partnership as far as it can go. Last year, Vice-Premier Zhang Dejiang urged China’s defense industry to make products that are applicable for both civilian and military missions (China Daily, August 18, 2011).

The real mechanism for connecting the public and private defense industries are the companies that make up China’s defense industrial base, many of which remain under some sort of state control. The largest of these domestic companies, which have for years designed and manufactured fighter jets and other military goods for the PLA, have now begun to compete in the UAV market. Many of the UAVs they produce, while ostensibly for civilian uses, have clear military applications.

Civilian UAVs on the Market and the PLA Connection

At a May 2011 exhibition on police and anti-terrorism equipment in China, UAVs were featured as a modern way to support police forces. One platform on display, and being considered by Chinese internal security forces, known as the “Pterodactyl,” is capable of surveillance, reconnaissance and ground strikes, and can fly at 5,000 meters for up to 20 hours. A spokesman for the Beijing municipal public security bureau commented that the drone would be particularly useful in locating suspects after nightfall, given its ability to see in the dark (China Daily, May 20, 2011). Another of the UAVs on display and now being considered for purchase by the Beijing bureau is reportedly the same model employed by the U.S. Army (People’s Daily, May 13, 2011).

Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), a state-owned entity and the designer of the Pterodactyl UAV, is heavily involved in research, development and manufacturing for the PLAAF. For example, one of AVIC’s subsidiaries, the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, led the design and manufacturing of the J-10 multirole combat aircraft, the JF-17 and currently manages the development of the J-20.

Another of AVIC’s subsidiaries, CATIC—which is involved in the design of a number of fighter and bomber aircraft, missiles and air defense systems—was part of a consortium that designed and built the V750 unmanned helicopter. Adapted from a manned helicopter, the V750 has a maximum range of 500 kilometers, is capable of cruising for four hours and can conduct photography, scouting and monitoring missions. It also can be controlled autonomously by stored programs or controlled manually, with the option to switch between the two mid-mission (People’s Daily, May 9, 2011).

As opposed to fixed-wing UAVs, these unmanned helicopters can remain stationary at a specified point in the sky to provide more stable tracking and analysis of ground targets and can even "send out interference to enemy devices" (People’s Daily, September 21, 2011). Previous tests of unmanned helicopters conducted by the Armed Police Engineering Institute included practicing precision bomb dropping, perhaps revealing some other military uses (PLA Daily, February 7, 2006). Only four months after the V750 was first tested, the PLA unveiled a strikingly similar concept in the Z-5 unmanned military helicopter, drawing attention to the civil-military connection. Further blurring the line between civil and military UAV technology, CATIC also has developed the U8E unmanned surveillance helicopter, which it states as being important for both civil and military roles, and a medium-altitude and medium-endurance UAV, which can be used for anything from forest fire prevention to electronic warfare and ground target designation (Jane’s Defense Weekly, May 11, 2011; CATIC Website).

At the 2010 Zhuhai Air Show, the CASL SL-200 was revealed—a high-altitude UAV marketed for agricultural uses such as creating artificial precipitation and spraying pesticides. What stands out about this model is that it reportedly features a “stealthy design capable of carrying out a very diverse payload,” giving some pause about its intended use. The designer of this UAV is the state-owned China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, a leading entity in China’s space program and parent company to manufacturers of a range of launch vehicles and missiles (Jane’s Defense Weekly, November 19, 2010).

Another one of China’s largest UAV companies, ASN Technology Group, which claims to own 90 percent of the UAV market, also is connecting the civilian and military UAV industries. For example, according to its website, it manufactures UAVs for civilian uses such as weather detection, search and rescue missions and “petroleum pipeline detection.” It also has released a lightweight drone, the ASN-211, featuring flapping wings meant to simulate birds and capable of carrying a mini camera—the UAV itself weighs less than half a pound. Based on similar technologies, ASN has developed a Reconnaissance and Precise Attack UAV described as being able to “find and destroy those time-sensitive targets immediately.” Although AVIC markets heavily to civilians, its website states the primary end users of its produces “are the Chinese troops” (ASN Group Website).

The market for Chinese UAVs is only growing. Indeed, Chinese companies are preparing to make larger inroads to the international UAV market. This shift will force the domestic industry to be more innovative and competitive, thereby enhancing the products the PLA can obtain. Although there is little publically available information on China exporting advanced UAVs abroad, there is some evidence they already are—or are preparing to do so in the near future.

At the 2010 Zhuhai Air Show an ASN Representative was quoted by a Western reporter as saying, "I can’t tell you which models we have sold overseas, as that’s secret, but of course we’re interested in exporting them…That’s why we’re displaying them here" (Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2010). To give some idea of the international exposure of Chinese UAVs in the last two years, CATIC has featured UAVs at overseas exhibitions in such places as the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and France, according to CATIC press releases. That UAVs are listed as a regulated item under the Regulations of the People’s Republic of China on Export Control of Missiles and Missile-related Items and Technologies strengthens the government connection since UAV exports would require a license from Beijing.

The Academic Connection

While the industrial base serves as an ideal way to exploit domestic manufacturing and utilize public-private partnerships, the government has long relied on academic institutions to fuel defense modernization. The Chinese government is actively looking to Chinese universities for insight into potential technological and operational uses of UAVs. In many cases, the military applicability of such research is acknowledged openly.

Two primary veins serve as the funding mechanism through which the government is fueling UAV research: Project 863 and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC). Project 863 is a state-funded grant program under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) with the objective of stimulating the high-tech industry, including technical fields that support national security. Since 1986, the program has been renewed in consecutive Five-Year Plans and remains an important source of funding for Chinese researchers and a critical tool connecting the government to academia, according to MOST’s description of the program. A similar, but alternative funding source, the NSFC is an entity of the State Council, which controls the National Natural Science Fund (NNSF). NSFC funding, which “mainly come from the State financial allocations,” is similarly dedicated to supporting applied science and technology research.

The NSFC says that it works in tandem with MOST to develop research and funding priorities; UAVs, it seems, is one of those priorities. For example, by analyzing academic papers, NSFC grants have been given to faculty at the School of Automation Science and Engineering at the South China University of Technology to study how to control unmanned helicopters during rapid and evasive maneuvers and in complex flight environments as well as to researchers at Beijing University looking into UAV remote sensing systems and multi-agent swarming techniques. 863 Program funds have gone to fund a range of remote sensing at the Academy of Opto-Electronics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences and MOST stated:

“Thanks to the support of the National 863 Program, China has developed a range of remote sensing hardware and software, including advanced visible light, infrared, laser and synthetic aperture radar that can be applied in high-precision small scale remote sensing, UAV remote sensing, and high-performance SAR remote sensing. [The funds have also helped China] master a range of key [UAV] technologies, including multi-UAV payload loading…precision navigation and positioning, and real-time data transmission.”

A great example of these funding mechanisms at work is the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA), which houses the Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle Research Institute and College of Automation Engineering. According to its website, NUAA receives over 10 million yuan ($1.6 million) each year from Project 863, NNSF and Project 973—a related science fund. With these funds, NUAA researchers have published papers on using computers to land UAVs autonomously on ships, adopting complicated algorithms for UAV flight control and techniques for using active perception to better guide low-altitude reconnaissance UAVs. NUAA features a long history of military innovation and has designed such UAVs as the Chang Kong-1, which has served in the PLAAF for decades, and the University’s website highlights its role in making “unprecedented breakthroughs” in national defense programs.

Commercial-Academic-Government Connections

The defense industry and academia do not operate independent of one another and instead often collaborate on military projects. For example, NUAA won an award from AVIC because of its research contributions to the company, which likely went toward new PLA platforms. The connection between industry, academic, and the military is well established and the UAV market is showcasing a similar trend. One of the best examples of these entities at work as one is ironically one of the most public: a UAV-making competition.

In September 2011, AVIC sponsored the International UAV Innovation Grand Prix, also known as the AVIC Cup, in an effort to utilize civilian ingenuity and creativity. The competition, which drew entrants from a number of Chinese universities, was designed to showcase how to use UAVs on aircraft carriers. Participants designed and created UAVs that were able to automatically take off, cruise, and land on the deck of a simulated aircraft carrier built on a trial course in Beijing. Publicized by the Chinese Society of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the winning designers were from such places as Northwestern Polytechnical University, NUAA and the Beijing Institute of Technology.


In President Hu Jintao’s report to the 17th Party Congress, he spoke directly to the importance of civil-military integration in modernizing the PLA: “We will establish sound systems of weapons and equipment research…that integrate military with civilian purposes and combine military efforts with civilian support…and blaze a path of development with Chinese characteristics featuring military and civilian integration.” Demonstrated efforts at such integration are already underway in the field of UAV development, but this is but one example of a wider trend in China’s defense strategy that is marrying public, private, civil and military skills to infuse new ideas and modern technology into its defense forces.


  1. See the “Implementation Measures for Weaponry and Equipment Research and Production Licensing” promulgated in May 2005 and discussed in China’s defense white papers.