Domestic drones empower various industries in China

By Kang Pu


In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have picked up pace in empowering various industries in China.


Thanks to technological advances and commercialization of research findings, UAVs’ application has been expanded into more and more fields, such as agricultural and forestry plant protection, emergency rescue, cultural relics protection, and power line inspection.


In Beijing’s Yanqing district, two sets of DJI Dock 2, a new drone dock developed by Chinese drone maker DJI, stand guard day and night at the southern and northern parts of the Badaling section of the Great Wall.


With the support of the drone docks, drones autonomously perform 10 patrol flights on five routes over the scenic area on a daily basis. The routes cover basically all the areas open to visitors.


Video footages from the drones are sent to the management center of the scenic area in real time, so that uncivilized tourist behavior can be discovered and discouraged in time. At night, infrared cameras on the drones make it hard for rule-breakers, including overnight campers, to evade surveillance.


In addition, the DJI Dock 2 can autonomously generate high-precision 3D models of key areas of the scenic area every two weeks. Through comparison of the 3D models, relevant personnel can notice changes in the natural conditions of the scenic area, such as landslides and wall shifts, in a timely manner, and carry out targeted examination and repair.


In Wensu county, Aksu prefecture, northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, plant protection drones have made farmers’ work in the fields much easier.


“Defoliant can remove the leaves from cotton trees while retaining the branches and cotton, thus preventing leaves from mixing with cotton and affecting cotton quality during harvest,” said Zhu Rui, a drone pilot of a Wensu county-based company specializing in agricultural plant protection-related services.


“This M-22 drone was jointly developed by my company and our partners. It can spray chemicals over 400 mu (about 26.67 hectares) to 500 mu of cotton fields per day,” Zhu said, while operating a drone to spray defoliant over a cotton field.


“Agricultural and forestry plants including walnut trees, Chinese date trees, apple trees, wheat crops, and shelter forests are all taken care of using plant protection drones. They have significantly eased farmers’ workload and increased their income,” Zhu noted.


According to Zhu, drones can increase farmland yields by over 10 percent and reduce the average cost per mu of farmland by more than 30 percent.


In April this year, when a forest fire erupted in Longjingwan village, Baoluan township, Fengdu county, southwest China’s Chongqing municipality, dense vegetation and complex terrain made it dangerous for emergency response teams to approach the forests without an accurate judgment of the situation.


Fortunately, several drones soon arrived over the scene, helping rescue teams get a clear understanding of the fire lines, ignition points and the geographical conditions of the locality.


“Commander, there are two fire lines to the southeast and southwest, plus three separate ignition points. The terrain is gentler to the northwest. I suggest entering the scene from that direction,” a rescuer reported.


With the help of drones, the fire was quickly extinguished.


Last year, Fengdu county equipped all its townships, subdistricts and relevant authorities with 36 domestically produced drones, achieving full coverage of drone-empowered intelligent oversight, according to Tang Shouyuan, county mayor of Fengdu.


“As air vehicles, drones are not limited to ground transportation constraints and can perform complex operations,” Tan Xiang, executive secretary general of the Research Center for UAV Applications and Regulation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, pointed out.


In recent years, China’s drone industry has achieved notable progress, with products enjoying higher reliability, lower costs, and diversified application scenarios, Tan said, noting that China has become one of the world’s largest industrial drone markets.


“Widespread application of industrial drones in agricultural plant protection, electricity supply, geography, security, marine science, meteorology, environmental protection, construction, healthcare, among other fields, has profoundly transformed people’s modes of production and lifestyles,” Tan said.


Technological innovations have played a crucial role in underpinning the extensive application of drones across industries.


Pointing out that some people in many sectors still have to work in complex and dangerous environments and perform repetitive tasks, Zhang Xiaonan, strategic director of DJI, said technological progress is supposed to help frontline workers complete missions more easily.


“Where there are pain points, there are sources of inspiration for innovations,” Zhang noted.


The DJI Dock 2, for instance, allows drones to autonomously complete flight missions without the need for a pilot to operate them.


The technical team of DJI envisioned the Dock as the “home” of drones. Equipped with various software and hardware, the “home” enables drones to make flight plans, perform flight missions, collect data, recharge, and complete other operations autonomously.


It took DJI 10 years to gain insights into users’ pain points, hone its Dock products, and finally win market recognition, according to Zhang.


The DJI Dock 2, as the second version of DJI Dock, is smaller but smarter. Compared to the initial version, the DJI Dock 2 has experienced a size reduction of 75 percent and a weight reduction of 68 percent, alongside significant increases in effective operational radius, flight time and professional surveying and mapping capabilities.


The continuous emergence of sci-tech achievements has contributed to the formation of a solid foundation for China’s drone industrial chain, according to Tan.


Drone technologies in China have undergone constant improvements, during which a good number of outstanding companies have achieved a strong presence in the drone industry, and a globally competitive complete industrial chain encompassing research and development, production, sale, and services has taken shape, Tan said.


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