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Over 30 Chinese military and government agencies have been using robotic bird drones to spy on the population – particularly in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region which borders several countries and has a large Muslim population, reports the South China Morning Post

One part of the country that has seen the new technology used extensively is the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in China’s far west. The vast area, which borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, is home to a large Muslim population and has long been viewed by Beijing as a hotbed for separatism. As a result, the region and its people have been subjected to heavy surveillance from the central government. –SCMP

Unlike traditional unmanned aerial vehicles with rotor blades or fixed wings, the bird drones actually mimic the flapping action of a bird’s wings in order to climb, dive and steer

The machines in China’s current robot flock replicate about 90 per cent of the movements of a real dove, the person said, adding that they also produce very little noise, making them very hard to detect from the ground, and are so lifelike that actual birds often fly alongside them. –SCMP

Each “bird” is fitted with a HD camera, GPS antenna, flight control system and data link with the capability to communicate with satellites. The flapping mechanism consists of a pair of crank rockers connected to an electric motor, while the wings are able to slightly deform when moving up and down – providing both lift and thrust.

The “spy bird” program, code-named project “Dove” is led by Northwestern Polytechnic University professor Song Bifeng – a former scientist on China’s J-20 stealth jet program decorated for his service to the People’s Liberation Army, according to information on the university’s website

Yang Wenqing, associate professor at the School of Aeronautics at Northwestern who is on Song’s team confirmed the use of the birds, and said that it is not yet widespread. 

“The scale is still small,” compared to various other drones in use today, Wenqing told the South China Morning Post, adding “We believe the technology has good potential for large-scale use in the future … it has some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilian sectors.”

Another researcher involved in the Dove project said the aim was to develop a new generation of drones with biologically inspired engineering that could evade human detection and even radar. –SCMP

Song’s team conducted nearly 2,000 test flights before deploying them in real-life situation, according to a researcher who asked not to be named. 

One experiment in northern China’s Inner Mongolia involved flying the birds over a flock of sheep – animals that are well known for their keen sense of hearing and ability to be easily spooked. The flock paid no attention whatsoever to the drone flying above, the person said.

Although the technology is still in its early stages of development, its wide range of possible uses – not only for the police and military, but also in the fields of emergency response and disaster relief, environmental protection and urban planning – means the market for the drones could be worth 10 billion yuan (US$1.54 billion) in China alone, the researcher said. –SCMP

How to detect?

Scientists are now scrambling to figure out how to identify small, low-altitude targets flying at low speed. One method may be holographic radar technology, which can produce 3D images of flying objects. 

However, “there is no guarantee” that even a holographic radar – or any of the other new technologies in development – would be able to detect a drone with a wing-flapping pattern that was almost identical to those found in nature, and “especially if it was surrounded by other birds”, Li said.

“It would be a serious threat” to air defence systems, he said. –SCMP

Not the first, not the last

The “Dove” isn’t the first bird drone China has produced. In 2012, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics released “Tian Ying,” an eagle-sized bird drone. China’s Harbin Institute of Technology – the country’s top university for defense research – is reportedly also developing a bird drone with a large wingspan that can operate in the thin air found at higher altitudes. 

In 2013, the US Army purchased 30 bird drones from Florida-based Prioria Robotics that were designed to look like hawks – though they are powered by turbofans with nonmoving wings.

And in 2011, Germany’s Festo Corporation produced a robotic herring gull dubbed the “SmartBird,” which has the ability to take-off, fly and land without assistance. 

According to a recent government document seen by the Post, China’s military has tested the Dove system and is impressed with it.

An evaluation of the system by an unspecified military research centre concluded that the drone, with its ability to stay in the air for more than 20 minutes and travel 5km, had “practical value”.

Gan Xiaohua, chief engineer at the PLA Air Force Equipment Research Institute in Beijing, said Dove’s unique design meant it could convert electrical power into mechanical force with “high efficiency”.

It is “the world’s only bionic micro drone capable of carrying out a mission all by itself”, he was quoted as saying in the government document.

Although the Post was unable to reach project leader Song for comment, in an April interview with the Chinese academic journal Aeronautical Manufacturing Technology, he confirmed that Dove and other devices had been deployed in Xinjiang and other provinces. –SCMP

“The products … have stimulated change and development in sectors including environmental protection, land planning … and border patrol,” he was quoted as saying.

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