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.
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.
- 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.