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UAV upgrades fly into major industrial segments

By FAN FEIFEI | China Daily | Updated: 2022-12-16 09:04

People use DJI drones to spray pesticides at an apple orchard in Jixian county, Shanxi province. ZHANG YUN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

Domestic makers boost efforts in public security, agriculture, disaster relief

Unmanned aerial vehicles, more popularly known as drones and often used as consumer electronics items, are expanding their application in a wider range of segments as major Chinese drone makers have ratcheted up efforts to develop a variety of designs, aspiring to take the lead amid fierce competition, industry experts said.

They added that industry-specific drones are playing a critical role in empowering companies across different segments to improve work efficiency, addressing agricultural labor shortages in some countries and enhancing all walks of life.

The scale of China's civilian drone market had risen from 7.9 billion yuan ($1.14 billion) in 2017 to 36.1 billion yuan in 2020, with the compound annual growth rate reaching 65.9 percent, according to a report released by Shenzhen, Guangdong province-based research firm AskCI Consulting. The figure is expected to reach 45.3 billion yuan this year.

Civilian drones comprise consumer-level and industry-level equipment. In the consumer electronics sector, drones are mainly used in aerial photography, while industrial applications of drones are seeing huge demand in China and will end up being worth much more, experts said.

Currently, drones have been increasingly used for various industries, including agriculture, geological surveying and mapping, electricity, oil and petroleum pipeline inspections, transportation, construction, public security and even disaster relief.

DJI, world's largest commercial drone manufacturer by market share, has invested heavily in industry-level drones, which have witnessed rapid development in the fields of agriculture, energy, mapping and public security, and created great economic and social value, said Zhang Xiaonan, strategic director of DJI.

Deng Kaiqiang, an engineer of DJI senior solutions, said the company has used drones to carry out three-dimensional digitization of national cultural heritage, a move that will make contributions to the preservation, restoration and research of cultural heritage and historical relics.

Deng said it only took two hours for drones to complete the digital scanning of the Huashan rock paintings in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region and less than one day to accomplish the modeling, which quickly restored the structure of rock paintings, thus greatly improving the efficiency of surveying and mapping.

Meanwhile, with the blossoming of digitalization, artificial intelligence, the internet of things and other digital technologies, the application of advanced and intelligent unmanned equipment in emergency rescue has become common.

"The emergence of industry-level drones has reshaped people's lives and production modes, as well as promoted the development of various industries. Such drones have not only helped frontline workers increase working efficiency, but also protected their lives at critical times," Zhang said.

In 2017, DJI decided to deploy drones in the fields of public safety, firefighting and emergency rescue. It established an emergency response alliance in 2020 and has participated in more than 300 rescue activities nationwide, such as during the flooding disaster in Henan province in July 2021, mudslides in Qinghai province in August and the forest fire in Chongqing in August.

The Shenzhen-based company has been devoting a great deal of attention to farming sector drones in hopes of helping farmers improve the efficiency of sowing seeds and spraying fertilizers and pesticides, as well as increasing the use ratio of intelligent agricultural equipment.

DJI's farm foray started in November 2015, when it launched its first agricultural drone, the MG-1, marking its diversification into the industrial segment. The company is bullish about the prospects for farm drones as the demand for such gadgets has surged and the whole industry is in explosion mode.

In November, DJI launched its latest agricultural drone products, the T50 and T25, which feature upgraded loading capacities and barrier-avoidance radar systems to increase working efficiency and accuracy. Drone operators who use T50 drones can spray pesticides over about 21 hectares of farmland per hour.

The Chinese government has issued policies to promote the use of modern agricultural machinery, which boosts the application of drones in agriculture. As of September, DJI's agricultural drones had been sold in more than 100 countries and regions, with the accumulated sales reaching 200,000 units around the world.

Zhang said the company expects to further promote the use of drones in all walks of life. "The industry-level drones are still in the initial stage. However, with the popularization of related technologies, their application will be more extensive in the future."

In addition, as demand for skilled drone operators continues rising, DJI has ramped up efforts to provide dedicated training curricula and training services at scale. It has founded the Unmanned Aerial System Training Center, called the UTC, which is designed to offer individual and commercial drone operators professional in-classroom and on-the-field training.

"The application of drones in industries is beneficial for DJI to improve its technology and its success in the consumer drone market will help DJI further widen its industrial application fields," said Pan Xuefei, a senior analyst at market research firm International Data Corp.

Pan said at present, the application of industrial drones is still in an early stage of development and "we still need time to see the large-scale application of drones in various sectors".

Data from the Shenzhen-based Qianzhan Industry Research Institute said the industrial drone segment has witnessed explosive growth in China in recent years, with sales revenue projected to increase from 27.3 billion yuan in 2020 to 265.8 billion yuan in 2026.

"China is at the forefront of state-of-the-art farm-specific drones, which are the fastest-growing and most widely applied industry-use drones," said Yang Jincai, director of the Shenzhen Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Industry Association, adding that he is bullish about the prospects for agricultural drones.

Drones have also played a vital and positive role in the fight against the spread of COVID-19 like spraying disinfectants, as well as delivering critical supplies during the pandemic. Yang added that the industrial drone market has huge growth potential, with broad applications in agriculture, cargo transportation, power line patrols and emergency rescue work.

Other domestic drone manufacturers have also stepped up efforts to venture into overseas markets, which have shown surging demand for advanced and intelligent agricultural equipment and technologies.

XAG, China's largest agricultural drone manufacturer by market share, said its overseas sales have maintained rapid growth despite the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic and international trade disputes this year.

Revenue from overseas markets skyrocketed 260 percent year-on-year in the first half, among which sales in Latin America and Southeast Asia surged 382 percent and 279 percent on a yearly basis during this period, respectively, the company said.

The acceleration of urbanization in Southeast Asia and South America in recent years has brought about a string of problems, such as loss of the labor force engaged in agriculture, thus driving strong demand for smart agricultural equipment.

"A shortage of agricultural labor has become a long-term problem for many countries. We hope to bring more unmanned farming devices to overseas markets through working with local partners and distributors," said Justin Gong, co-founder of XAG in an earlier interview.

Gong said farmers in Brazil, Ecuador, Chile and other South American countries with complex terrain attach more importance to the flexibility and precision of spraying, and farm drones are mainly used in banana, cocoa, coffee and sugar cane plantations.

"In the next few years, we expect agricultural drones to be used on a larger scale in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America," he added. The company's unmanned agricultural devices have been sold in 50 countries and regions, such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, Brazil, Switzerland, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In addition, to tackle the soaring cases of wildfires on farms, pastures and forests caused by dry weather, local fire departments in Brazil adopted XAG drones in fire drills in August. The drones, which spray liquid fire retardant, could stop the flames from spreading in time, efficiently control wildfires and improve the safety of firefighters.

Drone makers should improve after-sales services in overseas markets and strengthen cooperation with global drone industry associations in an effort to cultivate professional pilots and create additional job opportunities for locals, Yang added.

Agricultural drones have played a vital role in promoting "smart agriculture" around the world, said Lan Yubin, a professor from South China Agricultural University. He noted that drone technologies have been growing very fast and fierce competition in the drone market is driving the prices down consistently.

Jason Low, an analyst from market research company Canalys, said major drone companies are concentrating on professional and industry-level drones, spending a large part of their investment on developing software and hardware platforms, and attracting developers to create apps and new use cases for their drones.

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