As the rise of drones presses on, China has been one of the countries leading the global production market both in military (combat) and civilian use. They have manufactured and exported a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in different countries, mainly in the Middle East.

In recent years, the country has gained market share in the drone industry thanks to the massive funds it received from the government that helped ramp up research and development, subsequently, production and manufacture of the technology. And with this comes a precautionary tactic Beijing set to limit this highly exported technology from being used against them.

Drone ‘Watchdogs’

The South China Morning Post reported last week that Chinese drones have reportedly integrated a so-called hidden “watchdog” technology into all of its combat and reconnaissances drones that could prevent, if not restrict, enemies from using these UAVs to attack Beijing’s territories.

The report, citing an anonymous source close to the military, said that these devices had equipped a component capable of recognizing an “electric geofence” that wraps along China’s borders. It is a virtual boundary that, through the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, can control the movement of electric vehicles such as drones. Once these Chinese-built UAVs detect that it is approaching or entering the country, they can either turn around, slow down, or even disable themselves via self-destruction.

The cited source also noted that this simple technology mainly seeks to ensure that enemies do not use Chinese-exported drones as weapons considering the country often sold the device overseas. Moreover, it indicated that despite profitable exportation, Chinese drone developers’ top priority remains national security.

“This is the so-called watchdog tool, which is a simple technology aimed at making sure Chinese exported drones are not used by enemies as weapons to attack our country,” said the source via SCMP.

The hidden technology is now among the many standard capabilities required to be followed by Chinese manufacturers.

Turkish Drones Outperforming Their Chinese Counterparts

The recent report appears to confirm claims made by a top executive from another leading drone manufacturer last year regarding Chinese-built UAVs.

Baykar Technology CEO Haluk Bayraktar told EurAsian Times in an interview that China has integrated what seems to be a “hidden restriction” when some of these exported devices have reportedly “turned around” upon detecting proximity to the Chinese border.

Bayraktar also cited the “subpar performance” of Chinese drones that another country’s official confided, thus making some of its foreign customers switch to Turkish systems instead. Not to mention that between the two prominent players in the drone industry, Turkish UAVs have already demonstrated their might on the battlefield with their participation in the War in Ukraine. On the other hand, Chinese drones have yet to have a significant impact.

Despite touting advanced missiles, Russia’s drone program lags behind competitors

Read Next: Despite touting advanced missiles, Russia’s drone program lags behind competitors

China exported an estimated $7.8 billion worth of drones in 2021, accounting for more than 70 percent of the global market thanks to the vast state funding it received as part of its military modernization goals. With this, its drone export has multiplied in recent years, and the preventive measures of securing itself from being used against it made sense.

Moreover, drones have been particularly significant to Beijing as it mainly focuses on the intelligence warfare concept, as tackled by John Schaus, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), earlier this year.

Schaus explained that the advanced capabilities of UAVs enabled China to undertake missions beyond its borders without the need for extensive infrastructure or the potential political risks associated with deploying physical military personnel. Thus, the country’s heavy pouring of investment in technology, which analysts foresee as playing a critical role in any future confrontations over the Taiwan Strait and other parts of the region.

Chinese Drones in Ukraine

Despite its close ties with Russia, China has yet to export its drones, with some reports saying that some Chinese manufacturers have barred any sales to Ukraine. Some have also noted that regardless of their operators, these drones would not enter the battlefield, which has been dragging on for nearly 15 months now, appearing to restrict its UAVs and avoid taking sides in the conflict.

phantom drone
A Phantom 4 Professional drone (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nevertheless, some claims emerge regarding some Chinese-built drones being able to reach Russia and enter the war through third-party countries. Beijing has since denied this, but The New York Times report published earlier this year said China had made about $12 million worth of sales with Russia since the invasion via the covert third party.

The tech produced by DJI, or Da Jang Innovations, is one particular drone that these reports claimed flying over the battle zone, which is said to have slipped through restricted shipments via another third-party country. According to reports, Russia was in talks with a Chinese manufacturer to procure a hundred drones, with a delivery date in April. Following this, China’s foreign ministry commented on the matter, saying that its government was “unaware” of it, nonetheless emphasizing that it had “always held a cautious and responsible attitude” when exporting its military products that would further escalate the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Last March, a modified civilian Chinese-made drone was downed by Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine, noting that it had been refitted and weaponized to become a combat UAV.

You might want to check out Rise of the Drones: Unmanned Systems and the Future of War!