China was until the late 1990s content to follow Western unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developments and keep pace by copying or purchasing foreign technology. But when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) launched a modernization program in the late 1990s to prepare for possible conflict over Taiwan, development of unmanned systems became a priority. The result has been phenomenal growth in the UAV sector, which engages aircraft, helicopter, cruise missile and model aircraft companies, private concerns and university research centers.
At the third biennial Vanguard UAV exhibition in June 2010, 70 UAV-related companies displayed their wares, and at the November 2010 Zhuhai air show, 25 indigenous UAVs were shown. PLA ambitions for UAV development cover the gamut from micro to tactical to strategic, and could soon include stratospheric/near-space airships and hypersonic platforms.