China is stepping up its surveillance levels with a flock of high-tech drones disguised to look like birds.
Crafted to resemble doves, these sky-robots have already been deployed over the Xinjiang region of northwest China to allow officials to spy on the population.
Sources told the South China Morning Post that more than 30 military and government agencies have deployed the birdlike drones and related devices in at least five provinces in recent years.
Each one is designed to move like a bird with flapping wings and carries on board a small camera that will beam images back to its controllers.
The western area of China borders the likes of Mongolia, Russia and Kazakhstan and is home to a large Muslim population. According to reports, the Chinese government views this area as a “hotbed of separatism” and is keen to employ as much surveillance of people there as possible.
“The new “spy birds” programme, code-named “Dove”, is being led by Song Bifeng, a professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, capital of northwestern China’s Shaanxi province,” reports the South China Morning Post.
“Song was formerly a senior scientist on the J-20 stealth jet programme and has already been honoured by the People’s Liberation Army – China’s military – for his work on Dove, according to information on the university website.”
Sources have told the site that the drone programme is currently still only small-scale, but it could be developed to meet demand in both the civilian and the military sectors.
As well as cameras, the drones carry GPS antennas, flight control systems and data link antennas that enable them to be controlled remotely from a central location.
The team behind them conducted almost 2,000 test flights before deploying them in real life and have so far found that many people and animals simply dismiss them as regular birds.
The drones have a wingspan of 50cm and can fly at speeds of up to 40km/h (25mph) for a maximum of 30 minutes. Each one weighs around 200g and has on board sophisticated software that stabilises the video feed from the camera while a pair of crank rotors move the wings up and down.
This isn’t the first time that technicians have turned to birds to find inspiration for drone technology.
Scientists from Oxford University are using funding from the US Air Force to study whether birds of prey could actually help combat the threat of drones.
The peregrine falcon is the fastest member of the animal kingdom, capable of reaching speeds of up to 200mph during a hunting dive. Researchers fitted up to 55 falcons with video cameras and GPS receivers to track how they attacked prey that was strapped to a drone.
The idea is that the US Air Force could develop their own falcon drones that would be able to intercept rogue UAVs that entered restricted airspace.