A civilian drone used by China's State Grid to check power lines. (Photo/Xinhua)
Since Oblivion, the latest Hollywood sci-fi adventure featuring drones and clones hit Chinese screens in May, there has been a buzz about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the country.
Rather than fantasize about the roles drones could play in the future, some are going one step further.
A research and development base of drones is scheduled to be built in Taiyuan, capital city of north China's Shanxi province, as announced earlier this month.
The drone base is part of a project named united airlines sci-tech industrial park co-undertaken by Taiyuan Private Economy Development Zone and Shanxi Coal Asset Management. With a total investment of 2 billion yuan (US$322.6 million), it is another large civilian drone base that will be built.
Formerly a strictly military concern, the unmanned aircraft industry now attracts large amounts of civilian investment in China.
Drones, or UAVs, date back to the period of World War I. Civilian drones have become increasingly popular for use as they can fulfill tasks that are either difficult or dangerous for human beings, such as forest fire supervision, flood monitoring, nuclear radiation detecting, and atmospheric sampling. Drones sometimes even save human life. Only five hours after the 7.0-magnitude Lushan earthquake on April 20, drones sent back maps of the quake-hit areas with their remote-sensing function, which assisted relief workers.
In June 2011, China Aviation Industry Aeronautic Equipment Co established a civilian drone base in southwest China's Guizhou province. The State Oceanic Administration plans to build 11 drone bases for marine surveillance along the country's coastline by 2015.
The market capacity for civilian drones in China, though still at an early stage, has already absorbed tens of millions of US dollars, said Wei Yiyin, head of the Third Institute of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation.
Wei's institute, also known as China Aviation Technology Research Institute, is seen as the cradle of China's winged missiles. The missiles are similar to drones in certain technological aspects.
The institute, with some leading technologies, launched a company producing drones in December. The company currently offers six series of drones.
Experts believe that the next five to ten years will be the prime time for the industry. However, there may be concerns ahead.
For instance, unlike the organized practices of traditional military or official drone research agencies, no rules regulating the manufacture, application and marketing of civilian drones have been mapped out by the government so far.
"Many enterprises assemble drones just like assembling computer components," said Wang Jidong, deputy director of the helicopter institute of Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Since the drones do not require an airworthiness certification at the moment, private capital from home and overseas have flocked into the field hoping for quick returns. But lack of governance in the industry could lead to high costs and low penetration of civilian drones, said Wang.
"Only when breakthroughs are achieved in key technologies could the civilian drone market be popularized, which should be based on a series of solid research," he said.