China Shows Off Its Drones

China has been moving to catch up with the US and Israel in production of military UAV drones, reports the Wall Street Journal today, in an article by Jeremy Page (Friday, Nov. 19, 2010, A11). The article says that the uptick in drone output has surprised the West:

Western defense officials and experts were surprised to see more than 25 different Chinese models of the unmanned aircraft, known as UAVs, on display at this week’s Zhuhai air show in this southern Chinese city. It was a record number for a country that unveiled its first concept UAVs at the same air show only four years ago, and put a handful on display at the last one in 2008. The apparent progress in UAVs is a stark sign of China’s ambition to upgrade its massive military as its global political and economic clout grows.

I don’t think Western experts should have been all that surprised, at least looking to the long term. As has been noted repeatedly here at VC, drones are not some fantastically advanced technology, beyond the reach of all but DARPA. On the contrary, the avionics and flight control mechanisms have been around for a long time, with tweaks to the basic concept of remote controlled flight provided by advanced in communications and computers.

Sometimes journalists and others make dire predictions about the US or Israel having set off an “arms race” over drone deployments – the US and Israel, then China and Russia, then India and Pakistan …. but this misses the point. Drones will spread because they will take over significant parts of civil aviation in coming decades, no matter what, and that will be so in any industrialized economy. The technology is widely available and represents a vast cost savings – military aviation has many additional reasons why drones are useful, but this is part of a broader wave for all aviation.

It is not really all that different from DARPA subsidizing research into self-driving vehicles. This has obvious applications to urban warfighting, which is why DARPA has funded it for years – but winning researchers from the DARPA competitions for self-driving vehicles have now moved over to work with Google, finally deploying self-driving vehicles on the streets of the Bay Area this year. It’s not an arms race; it is the future of parts of vehicle automation for both civilian and military vehicles.

The real areas of technical competition in UAVs are not in avionics, nor in the weaponry – though improvements there will make them smaller and more discriminating as well – but in the sensors deployed on the drones. Sensors are hard – even today, the drone sensors, as far as we know publicly, are still in the range of video. There’s a lot of room for sophistication. The Economist had a good article recently on both the difficulties and the gradual improvements in the abilities of robotic “eyes” to “see” things. That’s the future technical competition in robotics, or at least an important part of it – much less so the avionics.

As for arms races, the true arms race in the military UAV world will not be a race to deploy – everyone who wants UAVs will have them, in various sizes. The race that matters will be the technological counters to drones – the counter-technologies that will bring them down out of the sky. That, we have yet to see deployed, but it will arrive very soon.