Daring domestic drone development delivers in Soaring Town

By Li Xuanmin in Xi’an Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/17 17:23:40

UAVs in Xi’an demonstrate huge potential, booming industrial applications

A target drone is displayed at an exhibition hall in Soaring Town in Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province on Monday. Photo: Li Xuanmin/GT

In an industry base in the outskirts of Xi'an, capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province on Monday morning, a swarm of drones were hovering and buzzing overhead, each loaded with tested packages weighing from less than 1 kilogram to dozens of kilograms.

After flying for several hours, most of the delivery drones dropped commodities exactly on the operators' head, while only several errant drones, accidently, did not fly to the designated place or failed to unload the parcels. 

The test is a common scenario in Soaring Town in Xi'an, the country's very first large-scale industrial base for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Companies and research institutions within the base are on their way to working on solutions to leverage the UAEs' capabilities and accelerate its wider market application.

The 5-square-kilometer base, jointly built by the Xi'an-based Northwestern Polytechnical University (NPU), local government and private intelligent aircraft developer CCKW Group, is expected to attract an investment up to 35 billion yuan, Gao Xiaojun, general director of CCKW's operation and human resources center, told the Global Times on Monday.

"Once finished, there will also be a complete upstream and downstream of UAE chains in the town as well as professional financial and technological services for incubating small and medium-sized drone start-ups," Gao said. 

And in many investors' eyes, the prospect of the UAE industry is so promising that their enthusiasm to dig out gold in the booming sector have not been dampened at all by several failure tests of delivery drones they witnessed that morning. 

"The drone age is coming, and we should not miss any chance," Sun Hui, a senior executive at Nanjing-based ZTE Soft, told the Global Times on Monday. Sun said he paid a visit  to Soaring Town for solutions in applying the technology in smart city management.

Another 40-something investor, who refused to give his name, also painted a bright picture for the industry's future during the visit.

"Take the delivery drone as an example… Just imagine that you order a meal and it could arrive at your doorstep within 15 minutes, which is not only faster but also cheaper and saves huge logistical costs," he told the Global Times on Monday, speaking in an excited voice.

In 2017, China produced 2.9 million civilian UAVs, up 67 percent year-on-year, the Xinhua News Agency reported. And domestic enterprises involved in the industry, including in the research and manufacturing of drones and parts, has grown to over 1,200 as of June, data from Shenzhen UAV Industry Association showed. 

Saturated consumer market

However, chances in the UAV consumer application - which general consumers could operate and mainly serve for flight and entertainment purposes - is slim, after several major drone-makers such as Dajiang Innovations Science and Technology Co (DJI), ZEROTECH and Ehang Egret claimed a major foothold in the market.

Having a finger in the pie from dominant players is not easy for latecomers.

In August, Autel Robotics, the US subsidiary of Shenzhen Daotong Intelligent Aviation, was in the limelight after it filed a complaint to the US International Trade Commission (ITC), arguing DJI had infringed two patents owned by Autel. And Autel therefore asked ITC to block DJI from selling its products into the US.

A senior executive of Daotong Intelligent Aviation complained in a media interview that rivaling with DJI, which has an overwhelming edge in price, technology, supply chain and patent, in the consumer market is threatening the start-up's survival. "We're like a child being held by the neck by an adult, close to death," the executive said.

Other drone-developers like Ehang and ZEROTECH have taken a smarter approach by making inroads into a market niche of the drone show.

Ehang has refused the interview request of the Global Times as of press time. But media reports said that Ehang's drone show has become a regular tourism and sightseeing project in Xi'an, generating incomes for the company while also reducing its stockpile.

In May, Ehang's 13-minute drone performance broke the Guinness World Record for the largest number of simultaneously airborne UAVs by 1,374 drones.

But a number of drones fall from the sky during the performance, indicating the immaturity of the technology. 

"It's difficult to march into consumer UAVs without competing head-to-head with industry leaders like DJI, and consumer UAVs are not a daily necessity. But still, domestic firms could look for opportunities in industry application," Ke Yubao, executive secretary general of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association of China, told the Global Times on Tuesday.

Booming industry applications

On the contrary, the building of UAVs for industrial applications, which required much more sophisticated technologies compared with consumer drones, just moved from "a preparative stage" to "a development period" as demands exploded and diversified, said Wang Junbiao, president of the UAE Institute under NPU, at an industry forum that was held over the weekend in Xi'an.

"I could name hundreds of industrial applications that could reshape China's life in agricultural, parcel delivery, environmental protection, surveying and mapping, and fire fighting… The market has huge potential," Sun noted.

Back in 2015, drone-maker XAG has changed its market strategy and made the research and production of plant protection UAV a top priority of its business.

In a similar move, DJI has unveiled its first plant protection drone MG-1 that same year, and the product was put into the market in March 2016. 

DJI did not disclose its future plan in industrial application when asked by the Global Times. But Ke stressed that for drone developers, the key opportunity lies not in expanding application, but rather in upgrading drone-related technologies, as most of the industrial applications are still pre-mature without a high intelligence level.

For example, almost all plant protection drones in China are used just to spray pesticide, whereas in Germany, drones, equipped with intelligent sensor, could be used to collect data so as to precisely apply pesticides, Ke said.

"So whoever could make a major breakthrough in the intelligent sensor, algorithm and flight duration is a winner in the drone industry," Ke remarked.

"It's impossible to remold existing UAVs to meet the specific industrial demand because the emphasis on intelligent features serving each industrial application differs from one another. In this regard, every player should design and produce drones from scratch," Sun explained.


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