Murphy's Law: Chinese UAVs Are Everywhere

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August 6, 2015: In early July 2015 Pakistan was embarrassed when Chinese media pointed out that the “Indian” UAV Pakistan claims to have shot down on the Pakistani side of the border with Indian Kashmir was not Indian made but was a commercial UAV from China. These Chinese commercial UAVs get around and are sometimes modified and upgraded for military use. When it comes to commercial UAVs, China is a major supplier and will sell to anyone anywhere.

Thus in early 2014 South Korea discovered that North Korea had applied off-the-shelf UAV components to produce some smaller propeller driven UAVs. Soon it was revealed that this program was quite extensive and had been around for a year or more. Although the two different designs (two had a delta wing while one had more conventional straight wings) have been encountered so far both used many of the same parts. Some of the internal components contained markings indicating North Korean origin. Thus is was concluded that the two small (1.9 meter/six foot wingspan) UAVs were definitely North Korean and used commercially available Chinese and Japanese components that any tourist could walk into a store and buy. These components are cheap, rugged and reliable and the North Korean UAV could spend over an hour in South Korea taking photos. There are cheap and reliable night vision cameras that fit into these UAVs.  One UAV was found March 31st 2014 on one of the islands near the maritime border with North Korea. The other one was found south of the DMZ on the 24th. The UAVs carried high resolution cameras that took pictures when over certain GPS coordinates. The photographs were about the same resolution you can get from Goggle Earth, but with these UAVs you can get photos more recent than most found on Google Earth. The digital photo files taken from one UAV included the South Korean presidential compound and some military facilities. The other one was photographing military facilities on the island. Soon after all this was announced in early April a civilian came forward and revealed that he had found a third such UAV in October 2013, but was not aware that it was North Korean. He led troops to where he found it and said the camera on board had been ruined by rainwater but that he removed the memory chip and looked at the photos. These showed a local dam and nearby coastal terrain. The man then erased the memory chip and reused it for his own camera.

UAVs this small are hard to spot with radar if they come in very low (under 100 meters/330 feet). Most importantly these UAVs appear to operate automatically and do not transmit photos back to the ground but store them onboard until the UAV comes back, completing its pre-programmed flight and using a parachute to land. Thus you cannot detect these UAVs via signals sent or received. They don’t make much noise but when flying under the radar (under 100 meters altitude) you could see and hear it as it went by at about 150 kilometers an hour. In response to this South Korea upgraded its aerial surveillance to handle this new (but not unknown) threat. Israel has a similar problem and has developed technology to deal with it. Since Israel sells a lot of military gear to South Korea, it was no surprise that ten Israeli radars were soon ordered. Meanwhile the government is considering offering rewards for civilians who find these UAVs since North Korea appears to be using a lot of them and for at least six months.

Meanwhile China is quite proud of its thriving commercial UAV industry, which produced a wide range of models. For example in mid-2014 China announced that a civilian UAV, used for mapping and land use surveys, recently stayed in the air for 30 hours, setting a record for Chinese UAVs. The previous record for Chinese UAVs was 16 hours.  This long endurance UAV was developed by a government agency (CASM, or Chinese Academy of Surveying & Mapping) and has limited military use. CASM has developed several small UAVs for survey duties. These UAVs all feature lightweight materials and tend to be under 50 kg (110 pounds) with small payloads (usually 5 kg/11 pounds). These take advantage of new lightweight and powerful cameras to economically monitor Chinese farming and natural resources. Some of these UAVs are also believed to be used by the police and security services.  

For several decades a growing number of Chinese commercial firms have been developing military UAVs. One of the most powerful of these is the Wing Loong (that's Chinese for Pterodactyl, a Jurassic period flying dinosaur) UAV which can be equipped to carry two BA-7 laser guided missiles (similar to the Hellfire) or two 60 kg (110 pound) GPS guided bombs (similar to the U.S. SDB). This large UAV has been around for a while. Since 2008 Chinese aircraft manufacturer (AVIC) has been showing off photos and videos of a prototype for a clone of the American MQ-1 Predator UAV that tuned out to be Wing Loong. In 2012 one was first seen in flight, over the capital of Uzbekistan, which, along with UAE (United Arab Emirates) were the first export customers. It was later revealed that development on Wing Loong began in 2005, first flight was in 2007 and Chinese troops got the first ones in 2008 for further testing.

While Wing Loong is similar in shape to the larger American MQ-9 Reaper, in size it's almost identical to the 1.2 ton Predator. Wing Loong weighs 1.1 tons, has a 14 meter (46 feet) wingspan, and is 9 meters (28 feet) long. It has max altitude of 5,300 meters (16,400 feet) and an endurance of over 20 hours. Payload is 200 kg.

 


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