China’s fast-rising drone market is changing the landscape of innovation, law enforcement, and entertainment

Homing in on a piece of blue steel jutting out from a rocky cliff, the drone camera zoomed to capture signs of human activity and household garbage scattered on the slope. It had finally found the fugitive’s hiding place.

In the densely forested hills of Yunnan province, local police had searched for the notorious human trafficker Song Jiang for 17 years. Last September, equipped with a squadron of drones, authorities scoured the rugged landscape and finally found Song’s remote cave dwelling from above, and put him back behind bars.

Versatile, efficient, and often relatively low-cost, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—commonly known as drones—form a 22.5 billion USD global industry, projected to nearly double to 42.8 billion USD by 2025. The integration of drones into society continues to expand the ability of groups as diverse as police, civilians, farmers, environmental watchdogs, and military to search, detect, monitor, and survey—changing the way humans plant crops, put out fires, enforce the law, and fight wars.

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author Tina Xu (徐盈盈)

Tina Xu is the former culture editor at The World of Chinese. She writes across film, literature, and society, spanning from indie documentaries to diaspora communities. Her stories for TWOC received the 2021 SOPA Award for Excellence in Regional Reporting on the Environment, and were finalists in Women’s Issues and Photography.

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