Geographies in Depth

3 reasons why China is the global drones leader

A worker looks on as drones are used to pollinate pear blossoms at a pear farm in Cangzhou, Hebei province, China April 9, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT.     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RC1D925766C0

A drone emits flame to burn down trash from power lines, in Hainan province, China. Image: Reuters

Harrison Wolf
Associate Director, Advanced Aviation, Flight Safety Foundation
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

Since its inception, American and European leadership has defined the aviation world. The West’s role as the international leader for aviation has been largely uncontested; Boeing and Airbus’s duopoly in passenger aircraft manufacturing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation Safety Agency’s (EASA) regulatory leadership set the standard for aviation safety across the globe. Forecasts indicate clearly that China is set to become a leading force and disrupt the world of aviation.

1. The Chinese are innovating faster

The drone industry is characterized and driven by one company: Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI). DJI has over 70% of the global market share for the consumer drone industry, with revenue of $2.7 billion in 2017. No Western-based company is able to compete with the complete supply chain integration, manufacturing pipeline, innovative pace and logistics support that defines the Shenzhen-based company. This provides immense and clear competitive advantages. Time and time again, international competitors have failed to compete with the low cost of hardware and software design, manufacturing and logistics chain that define the broader Chinese economy. DJI innovates quicker than any other drone company and integrates their competitor’s capabilities quickly, while also developing capabilities needed for safe flight faster than most; enabling better aerial data acquisition, video sharing and user experience.

Beyond implementing aerial imagery, Chinese manufacturers are well ahead of their competitors in the development and testing of autonomous systems for personal mobility. Ehang, a Chinese company focusing on passenger transport without on-board control, completed its first human test flights in rural China in early 2018; boasting speeds of up to 130km/h and a maximum distance of 80 miles. While international competitors exist, finding a test bed for new mobility projects has been a challenge and the burden of certification developed by traditional aviation authorities near impossible; New Zealand made headlines earlier this year for working with California based start-up Kittyhawk to develop certification pathways for electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft, while Ehang has been flying in China for years. Recently, Shenzhen, Jiangxi and Sanya announced unmanned traffic management (UTM) pilot projects that enable real-time coordination among drone operations over cities; one of the key elements for a commercial drone industry to develop. While the rest of the international community meet in industry standards groups to develop technological protocols over a period of years, China is testing Remote Identification and Tracking and UTM in real time; leveraging the experiences of companies like Unifly, who seek new test beds open to innovation, through partnerships with domestic technology leaders like Huawei.

The only thing keeping China within sight of other nations is the lack of a robust regulatory framework for drones that enables national-scale operation. Only Rwanda, which leads the world in national-scale drone delivery over long distances, has been able to implement such a cohesive policy. Once China is able to systematically approve any size or type of drone operation, it will be years, if not decades, ahead of the rest of the world.

2. China needs a next-generation logistics network

Through tremendous investment in China, mobility-focused technology companies are looking to redefine how dense population centers, and dispersed rural communities, move people, goods, and services. From 2014-17, investment in automotive, technology and e-commerce platforms accounted for over $50 billion, already dwarfing the rest of the world. E-hailing services, ordering car rides electronically, is estimated to reach $72 billion by 2020 in China, more than all other countries in the world combined. With 1.42 billion people and many cities on the top 20 list for highest density, China has an urgent need for greater movement of people, property and services.

With an economy growing at 6.5% and an extremely diverse geographical density in the country, China provides the perfect blend of urban and rural delivery environments to make drone delivery useful. JD.Com, China’s second largest online retailer, has spent the last year building a drone-delivery network that covers 100 rural villages leveraging 40 unmanned aircraft, while Amazon in the United States still hopes for approvals to begin flight testing. SF Express, arguably the leader in drone delivery internationally, recently became the first company with a Drone Operator License in China; providing a scale of delivery that is unparalleled anywhere else. With an estimated 80% of all business to consumer deliveries falling into the high-value, low-weight category, drones will soon be a disruptive force in last-mile delivery in China, then the rest of the world.

3. The Chinese government is backing the Fourth Industrial Revolution

China’s unique economic and political environment is driving the adoption of drones, personal aerial mobility and the digital infrastructure layers that make it all run. It is the Chinese government’s ability to invest heavily into the technology and aerospace sectors, while supporting both through regulatory agility that may be its greatest asset. President Xi’s “Made in China 2025” initiative will play an important role in nationalizing and leading the aerospace industry globally. China is projected to become the world’s largest passenger aviation market by 2024, yet currently purchases nearly all of its aircraft from abroad. Much of the technology being developed for drones will transfer over to larger passenger aircraft and certainly autonomous personal mobility platforms; leapfrogging the current technology leaders like Boeing and Airbus. The game is on as Airbus and Boeing both seek to expand their portfolios into low-altitude aerial mobility and autonomous aircraft operations, though both lack a singular supportive government with which to strategically align.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is defined by technological evolution driving the pace of regulatory change. Countries that can embrace innovation, while protecting society from greater risks will win, while those that fail to shape a brighter future will be limited in the benefits they reap. By leveraging a clustering effect similar to Silicon Valley of the early 90s, China has created the capacity, skills, expertise and logistical alignment driving their competitive advantage today. Ultimately, it will be the nation that is able to implement revolutionary technologies the quickest, and with the greatest agility, which will win in the aerospace industry in the future. Today that player is China.

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Geographies in DepthFourth Industrial Revolution
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