December 19, 2016      

As China works to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, the country is also striving to be the leader in industrial automation and military robotics. 2016 was a bellwether year for Chinese robots, and the security sector was no exception.

Last week, a Chinese warship captured an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) operated by a U.S. organization in the South China Sea. China’s defense ministry claimed that it had retrieved the drone as a potential hazard to navigation.

The U.S. government protested, saying that the UUV wasn’t breaking any laws while collecting data about the salinity, temperature, and clarity of the water near Subic Bay in the Philippines. Given recent tensions between China and the U.S. and statements by President-elect Donald Trump, the international incident could be but one of the first involving robots.

If it had been a military UUV, could China have obtained sensitive data or reverse-engineered its systems? What about intellectual property (IP)? In 2001, an American spy plane crashed with a Chinese jet and was forced to land on the island of Hainan. When the plane left, it was fully dismantled.

Could American drone operations be viewed as territorial incursions? It’s only a matter of time before non-governmental actors besides scientific researchers gain similar capabilities.

In this case, China is in talks to return the drone, defusing the threat of military conflict. At the same time, the rivalry between the U.S. and Chinese robots is likely to intensify.

Business Takeaways:

  • While there is no official strategy to grow military robotics in China, such as the “Third Offset Strategy” in the U.S., China’s leaders have signaled the importance of robots in their military’s growth.
  • China’s innovations in security robots and drones are no longer limited to stealing American innovations. They are now harness Chinese-developed capabilities.
  • The past 12 months have laid the groundwork for a Chinese military-industrial complex, and there is little understanding of what it will mean for global defense spending.

Building up Chinese robots for industry, security

China is already a major robotics power, with a noteworthy hunger for industrial robots. The nation is working to improve its robot density from 36 robots per 10,000 manufacturing to 150 by 2020. Last year, Chinese-based businesses acquired 66,700 robots, and that number is expected to rise to 150,000 by 2018.

According to a recent report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (download PDF), power brokers in Beijing are look at robotics as core to a “revolution in military affairs.” Between 2013 and 2022, China’s demand for military drones alone will grow by 15 percent each year, rising from $570 million to $2 billion.

As the country pursues its edge in military robotics, 2016 has been a monumental year for Chinese robots. Here are the top five military robotics developments in China this year.

AnBot at the Shenzhen International Airport

AnBot patrols the Shenzhen International Airport.

1. AnBot

At the Chongqing Hi-Tech Fair in April, a security robot called “AnBot” was unveiled. It was developed at China’s National Defense University.

AnBot has sensors analogous to human eyes and ears. It can patrol autonomously, has a dedicated SOS button, and most controversially, can shock people with electricity.

In September, Shenzhen Airport deployed AnBot as a security guard. For now, its duties are limited to facial recognition, where it takes pictures of people and sends them for analysis.

China could soon use AnBot in other ways, like replacing aging police officers in cities or working as security for public events.

2. CH-5 drone

In November, China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics (CAAA) unveiled the CH-5, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

CAAA is behind all other versions of China’s CH-class drones, and its CH-3 and CH-4 have been exported to a number of countries in the Middle East and Africa.

What makes the CH-5 so important is that, unlike previous CH-classes that were cheaper alternatives of American drones, the Chinese robots go beyond simply reverse-engineering U.S. innovations.

Military developments in Chinese robots include the CH-5 UAV.

China’s CH-5 is a truly homegrown UAV.

Key features of the CH-5 include the ability to autonomously identify its own targets and engage them, to operate for up to 60 hours continuously, and to be fitted with an array of weapons, including conventional bombs or advanced radar jammers.

Is the CH-5 the future of Chinese military innovations?

3. ‘Chinese DARPA’

In March, China’s Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC), the biggest missile weapons system developer and manufacturer in China and the main party working on China’s space program, announced the location for its intelligent robot division.

It will be housed in Shenzhen, but don’t let the name “intelligent robot division” fool you. This Chinese robot division is by all accounts, an unofficial equivalent to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

CASIC’s core focus will be to act as a bridge between the civilian and military robotics technologies. It will also be used as a manufacturing hub to “convert cutting-edge technologies into robotic products.”

If this sounds ambitious but vague, this is likely on purpose. Beijing probably doesn’t want to give too much away regarding CASIC’s operations, so it should be watched even more closely.

4. ‘Plug-and-play’ cruise missiles

Aligning with the idea of CASIC being China’s unofficial equivalent of DARPA, in August, CASIC unveiled plans to integrate artificial intelligence into future cruise missiles.

CASIC has three goals when it comes to the next generation of cruise missiles:

  • Reduce costs in manufacturing
  • Ensure that the missiles can be “multifunctional” (payload can be changed, targets can be at land/sea)
  • Produce missiles based on the tasks they will be carrying out

A CASIC designer referred to these goals as a “plug-and-play approach.”

According to the designer, “very high levels” of AI and automation will ensure that military officials can control missiles while in flight, “install” additional objectives into the missile as they’re moving, and manufacture missiles “on demand” in a very little time.

This points to a new kind of missile competition. It is no longer about how big of an explosion a missile can create. It’s about what else it can do, before and after it hits a target — capabilities only robotics can provide.

Advances in Chinese robots include this exoskeleton.

This Chinese exoskeleton could have military and healthcare applications.

5. Military exoskeleton

In March, the Center for Robotics at University of Electronic Science and Technology of China announced that it would begin production of a new exoskeleton in 2016. The Chengdu-based university has been developing exoskeletons since 2010 and showcased a newer version last year.

The new exoskeleton, harnessing major improvements regarding healthcare thanks to sophisticated “embedded motion sensors,” is being developed for healthcare and the military.

Chinese robotics includes exoskeleton advancements, but this is the first model that is expected to go into full-scale production. Could China export it to other countries, as China has done with its drones?

More on U.S. and Chinese Robotics:

Chinese robotics mark a strong year

China’s advancements in military robotics in 2016 represent several important milestones for the country. First, AnBot is a fully homegrown military/security robot that has already been deployed in real-world settings.

Second, the CH-5 is the first military drone that relies on Chinese innovation rather than reverse engineering.

Thirdly, CASIC is providing the foundation for future Chinese robot developments for military uses. All of this also takes place as China’s military drive picks up speed.

The growth of Chinese robots could follow two trajectories in 2017. First, military models could be more advanced. For instance, humanoid robot soldiers could include some AI capabilities.

Second, Chinese robotics will be produced for a new kind of export economy in which military exports as valuable as traditional Chinese manufacturing exports.

In 2016, Chinese robotics took its first steps to forming a Chinese military-industrial complex. Is the world — especially the U.S. — ready for such an industry?