BEIJING • In what is seen as a potential threat to American superiority in technology, the Chinese are becoming a leading player in drone making, even unveiling last month a device capable of carrying a passenger.
The drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), as the name suggests, is a remotely piloted aircraft varying in sophistication, that is employed by a wide range of users from hobbyists and photographers to security personnel.
China, in recent years, has emerged as a major producer of drones, second only to the United States, supplying both state and non-state actors, including those in conflict zones in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and North Korea.
For instance, UAVs from China have been used against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants by Iraqi security units last December, causing serious casualties, according to military analysts.
"Many of the Chinese drone manufacturers are selling small UAVs capable of battlefield reconnaissance and some can now be equipped with missiles," Mr Michael Boyle, a drone expert and senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, was quoted as saying by the Voice of America (VOA), a US government-funded broadcaster.
The area over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is increasingly a prime area for drone competition. They have a number of advantages: Drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups.
MR MICHAEL BOYLE, a drone expert and senior fellow at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute
He noted the huge export potential for Chinese drones with tight export controls imposed by the US Congress on American drones. Chinese drones, he said, will have a good market in a large number of countries in Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa, which are denied US technology.
Experts believe the UAVs will influence tussles in the South China Sea and East China Sea, with Japan likely to fly US-made Hawk drones.
"The area over the disputed islands in the South China Sea and the East China Sea is increasingly a prime area for drone competition. They have a number of advantages: Drones can identify changes on the ground in the islands and provide photographic evidence of military build-ups," Mr Boyle said.
The UAV technology is resetting the terms of global competition and quietly altering the rules of the game for many long-simmering conflicts and rivalries, he added.
"This is happening, in part, because few, if any, states will use drones in the way that the United States currently does, as a way to ruthlessly target militant networks in ungoverned territories."
Mr Boyle, in his interview with the VOA, also warned against complacency on the part of the US over its superiority in drone technology.
"While their current technology lags and, in some cases, merely imitates US drone models, global competitors such as China and Russia are now spending billions to catch up to the United States in research and development for drone technology," he said.
Indeed, Chinese drone maker Ehang Incorporated caused a stir at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show last month, when it unveiled what is believed to be the world's first passenger drone.
Ehang described its Ehang 184 as "a manned drone capable of automatically carrying a passenger through the air, simply by entering a destination into its accompanying smartphone app".
The unveiling of the manned drone has led some US experts to ask if China will be putting soldiers in drones.
Others, however, have questioned the quality and capabilities of Chinese drones, with some saying those made in Israel and Russia are far superior in technology to the Chinese-made ones.
Some experts also questioned the safety standards of Chinese drones. "Drones are much more inherently dangerous than the cheap toys that China produces in large quantities and that are subject to very limited safety standards," the VOA quoted Mr Roger Clarke, of Australia-based Xamax Consultancy, as saying.