China has for years been using robotic doves—drones that look and fly like real birds—to surveil the skies over its provinces, marking one of the most peculiar parts of the nation’s widespread civilian surveillance program.
A report from the South China Morning Post describes how sources told the newspaper that more than 30 military and government agencies have used the bird-like drones in recent years.
The Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, which borders Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, has been of particular focus for the drone program because the area is viewed by Beijing as a “hotbed for separatism,” according to the South China Morning Post.
“The scale is still small,” Yang Wenqing, an associate professor at the School of Aeronautics at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian who’s worked on the dove project, told the newspaper.
But the drones could see more use in coming years.
“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,” Wenqing said.
A bird-like drone made by Festo, a German company.
Unlike common drones that use rotor systems, the dove drones mimic the flapping movements of a real bird to give it lift. Each comes with a high-definition camera, GPS antenna, flight control system and data link with satellite capability.
The dove drones weigh just under a half-pound—only slightly heavier than the average weight of a mourning dove—and can reach speeds of up to 25 miles per hour for about 30 minutes at a time.
They also seem to pass for actual birds in the sky. According to a source close to the project, real birds have been seen flying alongside the robot doves, and a flock of sheep—an animal known to spook easily—paid no attention to a drone when it cruised nearby.
It’s not a surprise the Chinese government has expressed interest in the dove drones. For years, China has been planning and slowly rolling out a large-scale program that’s designed to give each citizen a ‘social credit score’ by 2020. The government says the program is designed to boost “trust” nationwide and build a culture of “sincerity.” It just might. After all, doing business in China can be risky because many signed contracts simply aren’t kept.
But the social credit score program also seeks to measure other, more Orwellian-sounding things, like whom citizens associate with, what they post online, what they buy and whether they smoke in non-smoking zones.
It’s not hard to see how a quiet, undetectable bird drone might help government officials on that last one.