Singapore Air Show

China Gains Momentum In UAV Market

 - February 15, 2012, 2:00 AM
BVE’s BL-60 unmanned helicopter was one of many new Chinese rotorcraft UAVs displayed at Aviation Expo 2011 in Beijing.


The Chinese aerospace industry’s advance on the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) sector appears to be gaining momentum. On Dec. 31, 2011, Chinese publication Jinyang Yangcheng Evening News reported that the South China University of Technology has developed its “first unmanned maritime surveillance helicopter” under contract from Guangdong Province and China’s Marine Surveillance Corps. The report claimed that the rotorcraft is already operational and can take off and land vertically using both land and seaborne platforms and perform coast patrol and sea observation missions. The UAV reportedly has a maximum level speed of 49 knots, but normally cruises at 27 knots.

Although the Chinese industry has long been experimenting with unmanned helicopters, it does not seem to have won any orders from local customers until very recently. Evidently, the companies concerned had been starting to wonder whether there really was a viable business model for these programs.

Dozens of new UAV designs were exhibited at Airshow China 2010 in Zhuhai and then at Aviation Expo 2011 in Beijing in September 2011. The Beijing show featured no fewer than six unmanned helicopters–some were mockups but some were fully operational examples. The exhibitors also published details of many other UAV programs that they have in the works.

Obviously, commissioning of the maritime surveillance unmanned helicopter marks a next step in Chinese UAV development and is the result of about 10 years of concerted research-and-development work.

A decade earlier at the Aviation Expo in Beijing, the Chinese industry had displayed a rotary-powered UAV designed for crop-spraying, designated the CHU. It looked similar to the design now developed for Guangdong and seems to have been inspired by Japan’s Yamaha RMAX model. Since 1983, more than 1,600 examples of this type have been built for agricultural applications, notably spraying of chemicals. The Yamaha can lift a 66-pound payload and loiter for 90 minutes within a six-mile radius, with its performance being similar to those given for its Chinese clones.

The CHU was developed by Avic’s China Helicopter Research and Development Institute (CHRDI). In September 2011 the CHRDI exhibited a newer design that resembled another Aviation Expo 2011 exhibit, the Z-5 from the 60th Research Institute of Central Staff Dept. of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Its streamlined design features a classic helicopter layout with a main rotor and an anti-torque propeller on the tail.

The aircraft, weighing 992 pounds, can develop climb rates up to 135 to 164 feet per second, has a 11,483-foot ceiling, a range of up to 54 nautical miles and loitering capability of three to six hours. It can carry payload of 130 to 220 pounds.

Photos and videos available at the Beijing event showed the Z-5-lookalike UAV flying. Images on the stand of the PLA’s Institute showed half-a-dozen UAVs that the establishment is working on, including the Z-3 and the W-60 UH, as well as the W-50, S-200 and the S-300 “airplane-like” vehicles. At the same time, it is also developing a family of “CYS” series compact engines.

Meanwhile, also working in the same field is the Third Academy of China Aerospace Science & Industry Corp. (COSIC). As with the CHRDI, some of its designs look similar to those on the PLA’s Institute stand, albeit carrying different designations. For instance, the S300 looks like the WJ-600. Among other things, COSIC is developing its CTJ series of engines for both UAVs and cruise missiles.

In addition to the three core government-backed groups, a number of private and mixed-capital enterprises also are trying their luck in the UAV market. From its base in Hunan, Sunward Technology Co. Ltd. is working on the SVU200 compact helicopter, dubbed the Flying Tiger. It features classic layout with a main rotor and tail rotor, and looks like a scale model of Russia’s first mass-produced helicopter, the Mi-1, from the 1950s.

Another newcomer displayed in Beijing last September was the M28 from This is an unmanned helicopter with a coaxial rotor system, resembling Kamov’s experimental Ka-37 helicopter.

Another exhibitor, BVE, demonstrated the BL-60 UAV, dubbed the [U]FCopter. This appears to be another derivative of both the RMAX and CHU aircraft. A similar design was exhibited at Airshow China 2010 in the form of SIA’s ServoHeli-120. This vehicle is classed as an autonomous rotorcraft UAV and is pitched at applications including surveillance, detailed reconnaissance, experimental platform and load dropping.

The ServoHeli-102 has a maximum takeoff weight of 265 pounds including an 88-pound payload. It can achieve a maximum level speed of 65 knots and cruise at 51 knots for around 90 minutes.

For the time being at least, China’s unmanned helicopters appear to be of a significantly lower quality than Western models such as the RQ-16 T-Hawk micro air vehicle developed by Honeywell and DARPA in the U.S. However, there is no doubting the competitive spirit of companies in this field.