AUVSI: China displays UAV in USA for first time

Washington DC
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This year's show marks the first time a Chinese unmanned air vehicle (UAV) is being exhibited in the USA.

The Hubei Ewatt SVU-200 rotary-wing UAV is the brainchild of Dennis Fetters, former owner of now-defunct Revolution Helicopters.

UAVs are a relatively new business area for Ewatt, a large Wuhan, Hubei Province-based company better known for importing electronics for China's national electrical grid company. The utility of UAVs to a power grid company is clear - one of the most frequently-mentioned roles for rotary-wing UAVs is power line inspection, a dangerous and tedious job currently performed by manned helicopters - but Ewatt has larger ambitions.

The company is building what it says is the largest UAV manufacturing facility in China, with an initial capability of producing 200 aircraft per year, with the option of scaling up to produce 1,000. Ewatt's UAVs have previously been used for disaster relief following an earthquake.

hubei ewatt svu-200 rotary-wing uav billypix

 Billypix  

The Hubei Ewatt SVU-200 rotary-wing UAV the first Chinese UAV to be exhibited in the USA 

The SVU-200 is said to be capable of lifting a 200kg payload, either between the two fore and aft payload bays or as a sling load. Larger UAVs are in the works.

Despite a relatively advanced and ever-expanding aerospace manufacturing sector, Chinese industry has not moved wholeheartedly into the world of civil UAVs eagerly anticipated in the USA and abroad. Chinese companies have exported turboprop airliners and high-performance military aircraft, but UAVs remain a closely-held asset.

"It will be interesting to see how, if at all, and to what extent China's UAV development impacts the world UAV market," says Austin Strange, an analyst studying China's UAV industry at the US Naval War College. "First of all, unlike the United States, China is not a member or signee on two very key international agreements, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Because China doesn't sign onto these, presumably there's more space for them to operate in the market, they can sell to more partners."

In fact, even domestic UAV usage has been limited. UAVs have been a prominent fixture of Chinese military aviation, and Chinese companies have bought display stands at major airshows, including Paris and Farnborough. The biggest displays are reserved for domestic air shows, notably Zhuhai, where a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV was prominently displayed, in addition to many models and concept pictures.

"I think China prefers to do it that way, especially because some of these platforms may be relatively exportable. I think they're eager to attract different representatives of different countries to China to take a look at the drones there," says Strange.

Ewatt's display at AUVSI may be the first of many, but doubts remain about the reliability and efficiency of Chinese-built UAVs. Certainly the manned platforms have suffered a plethora of problems (and have the reputation to boot) and competition from companies in other nations - notably Israel, which is also not party to either Wassenaar or MTCR - may cause China to lose its hypothetical place at that table altogether.

The military side of things has seen a marked improvement. UAVs are not new to China - it was Mao Tse-Tung who began importing and copying drones from the Soviet Union. UAVs since have been displayed - often involuntarily by people with camera-phones standing in the bushes by the runwayside - that chart a seeming renaissance in China's unmanned technology. Among the aircraft so unveiled have been a Global Hawk lookalike sporting a box wing, dubbed Soaring Dragon; another is a smaller stealthy UAV called Sharp Sword. Though those aircraft, to name just two, are certainly inspired by Western designs, they display aspects of originality and customization.

"One thing I think is important to note is that China's drone development has not really garnered international accolades until recently," says Strange. "As a result of the international attention it's getting, China now has this budding recognition as an emerging force in drone technology and development.

"However, I think there are definitely still doubts throughout the international community on the reliability and quality of Chinese drones," he continues. "They're largely unproven outside China."