Obsession with flying machines

On the street leading to Shenzhen’s noisy Huaqiangbei market, the down-to-earth electronics bazaar where visitors hunt for deep bargains, it is evident that China’s pavement toy industry is undergoing a transition. Instead of the terrestrial objects such as remotely-controlled cars or tanks of the past, it is toys that fly, especially glitzy fighter jets and tiny drone copies, that are a big draw.

Popular imagination is fast acquiring its own kinetics. The fascination for drones, of which Shenzhen is a manufacturing hub, is rapidly becoming a national obsession. Even in the faraway U.S., the Chinese preoccupation to pioneer technology that would make waves in the skies is palpable. Last year, the Chinese firm Ehang unveiled the electric Ehang 184 passenger drone at Las Vegas. This is a 142-horsepower “personal flying vehicle” that can scale 11,000 feet to transport one person to his or her destination.

The Autonomous Aerial Vehicle (AAV) is essentially a “drone taxi” that can fly for 23 minutes flat. The rider can engage the vehicle through a convenient mobile app. Once the destination is entered, the automatic flight control system chooses the fastest, safest route, cruising at a speed of 100 km per hour. The Guangzhou-based company is already turning many heads, especially in Dubai, the futuristic city of ultra-modern skyscrapers and much more that rises from the barren sands of the UAE. Authorities in the metropolis now plan to induct the pilotless aircraft in July, as part of its smart transportation system.

But Chinese drones are not just confined to the civilian domain. China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation, the country’s largest missile-maker, has begun to develop military drones that can evade radar and anti-aircraft weapons, says a China Daily report.

Back in Shenzhen’s busy business district, a company called DJI has emerged as a global leader of small drones. Its gleaming white and gray 12th floor office, embellished tastefully by white phalaenopsis, showcases a range of drones, whose manufacture began only in 2006. Some of DJI’s latest drones are popular with movie-makers as they can mount professional cameras, slashing shooting costs by eliminating the use of expensive helicopters. There are other drones customised for low-flying that can spray pesticides over crops, 40-60 times faster when compared to a manual operation.

Unwelcome intrusion

The proliferation of drones, however, has its downside. The People’s Daily online has reported that in January that the local police detained an amateur enthusiast after his drone recorded the descent of a plane– a move that could pose a serious security risk. In another aviation incident, a pilotless vehicle disrupted several flights after its unwelcome intrusion at Chengdu international airport, in southwest China.

These incidents highlight the problem of regulations governing the use of drones. Under the current law, operators are not required to get a licence if the empty weight of the drone is less than 4 kg, and take-off weight not higher than 7 kg.

With China cornering 70% of the global drone sales, regulation of the industry is urgent for fulfilling the potential of a market, with an estimated size of $1.6 billion in 2018.

In July 2016, the Civil Aviation Administration of China released a new set of rules for the use of drones, but critics say they lacked detail or had controversial stipulations.

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