- China is a pioneer in surveillance: it brought biometric surveillance to Beijing’s metro and smart glasses to its police force.
- The latest addition to its growing list of surveillance technologies is a “Dove” drone.
- The “Dove” drone is so bird-like, it can pass undetected by highly sophisticated radars.
Considering that China already uses biometrics to identify Beijing metro commuters, facial recognition surveillance at large events and smart glasses to assist police in apprehending criminals, it’s not as though the country needs to step up its game when it comes to surveillance technology.
As a pioneer in this field, China hardly needs to add to its growing list of innovations within the surveillance industry — and yet they’ve just been trying out a flock of new “Dove” drones.
The drones, which fly just as a real bird would, have already been tested in regions such as Xinjiang, where they’ve gone completely undetected.
According to sources in a report by the South China Morning Post, the drones have already been tested in at least five provinces by some 30 government and military agencies in the country.
The new drones have been developed for a program known as “Dove” and are able to replicate about 90% of the movements of a real dove. Unlike standard unmanned aerial vehicles with fixed wings or rotor blades, these drones can gain altitude, dive and accelerate in flight just as a bird would.
The flap mechanism allows the wings to change shape slightly when they move up and down, generating not only lift but also pushing the drone forward. They’re also very quiet, which makes them very difficult to detect.
Prior to its launch in populated regions, more than 2,000 tests were carried out on some of the drones, proving these robotic birds can go undetected in the presence of other animals, with some birds even flying alongside them.
Each of the drones has a built-in high-definition camera, a GPS antenna, a flight control system and data link with satellite communication capability. In terms of design, they weigh around 200 grams, have a wingspan of approximately 50 centimetres and can fly at speeds of up to 40 kilometres per hour for up to 30 minutes.
The “Dove” program is being led by Song Bifeng, a professor at Northwestern Polytechnic University in Xian. Northwestern Aeronautics School associate professor and member of Bifeng’s team, Yang Wenqing , emphasised that “the technology has good potential for large-scale use in the future” and that “it has some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilian sectors “.
Its design could deceive even highly sensitive radars, posing a real threat to air defence systems. It’s estimated that these devices could cost up to 10 billion yuan (more than $1.52 billion).
This isn’t the first time a drone has been built to imitate nature
At the moment the technology is still in the early stages of development. In addition to being unable to travel long distances or in strong winds, their performance can still be affected by heavy rain or snow. Another major flaw is that, in the absence of an anti-collision mechanism, drones are prone to crash into obstacles when flying at low altitudes.
However, all these problems are being looked into by the project’s researchers — and according to Bifeng, the next generation of robotic birds is expected to fly in complex formations and make independent decisions in the air.
Yet China isn’t the first place innovators have sought to build a device to resemble a bird: in 2013, the U.S. military acquired more than 30 drones from Florida-based Prioria Robotics, designed to look like birds of prey.
Other well-known birdlike aircrafts include the “SmartBird”, developed by Festo Corporation in 2011 — the devices mimic a robotic seagull that can take off, fly and land without human intervention. The project never went to market and the company revealed to Science magazine that its use would not be permitted for military purposes.