How China’s cutting-edge drones are transforming the nation

Consumer Drone Yuneec

From monitoring pollution to displaying ‘fireworks’ to revolutionizing farming, the sky’s the limit for these hi-tech flying machines

Stephen Chen | August 12, 2017

In a small industrial area of Dongguan, a city in southern China’s Guangdong province, a drone hovers 150m above the ground. The IntelFlight device, equipped with a sensor that detects eight types of air pollutant, is collecting data after a resident reported an unpleasant odour to the environmental authorities.

After circling for about 20 minutes, the drone transmits the information it has collected to a monitor held by its pilot in the form of a digital map with different coloured markings. A series of red dots on the map indicate the areas emitting the highest concentrations of volatile organic compounds and after studying them, the environmental inspectors quickly locate the source of the pollution – a plastics factory with a concealed chimney.

“With the help of drones, any resident can now pick up their phone and stop pollution within hours,” said Fang Jiawei, a product manager at Guangdong IntelFlight UAV, which provides drone services to the Dongguan government.

Dongguan, one of the world’s biggest manufacturing hubs, is home to more than 300,000 factories making everything from shoes to smartphones, and all crammed into a region about the size of Hong Kong. About 200 environmental inspectors oversee the plants’ emissions.

The use of pollution-detecting drones has helped the city identify and punish tens of thousands of polluting factories, and cut the number of smoggy days to just 12 last year from 104 in 2015, when the devices were introduced as part of an environmental clean-up campaign, according to the local environmental protection bureau.

In the past, residents would regularly don face masks on the streets to protect themselves from the smog. But the practice has since waned as the city’s air quality is now ranked among the best in China. The average PM2.5 level – the small polluting particles deemed most harmful to health – is 35 micrograms per cubic metre, close to that of downtown Paris.

“We’re not just impressed by the results, we’re shocked,” Fang said.

Clean ‘fireworks’

Drones are being used not only to detect pollution, but also to curb emissions. They are even transforming the thousand-year-old Chinese tradition of setting off fireworks, which are notorious for producing as much air pollution as they do noise.

At the global premiere of Hollywood action franchise Transformers: The Last Knight in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, last month, Chinese drone firm Ehang used 100 of its devices for a “fireworks” performance lasting several minutes. The flights of the unmanned aerial vehicles were synchronised to create patterns in the sky, including one of the face of Optimus Prime, a central character in the film.

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