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GAIC reveals story of unmanned vehicle / by Chen Boyuan, January 14, 2014 Adjust font size:

A model of China's first independently developed UCAV WZ-2000. [photo /]

A model of China's first independently developed UCAV WZ-2000. [photo /]

A WZ-2000 (also known as WuZhen-2000) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) took off at Guizhou Aviation Industry Group (GAIC) on Dec. 26, 2003, marking the success of China's first independently developed UCAV. But why did it come out of Guizhou, a province with such backward technology?

Yang Shaowen, who headed the group's research institute at the time, said, "The details used to be classified information, but after all these years, its story can now be told."

China felt the need for a UCAV in the wake of the Kosovo War, which broke out in March 1999. During the war, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) played a large role in the assaults launched by the United States and NATO.

Yang, who was at that time chairman of GAIC, agreed that in future warfare, UAVs would play a larger role. "In the future, countries at war will compete on information technology. The side that lacks information will be doomed to fail," he said.

Several months later, Yang had colleagues explore the market potential for a UCAV in Beijing. They returned with a two-sentence conclusion: "The UCAV is a new piece of equipment and its prospects is good. GAIC is not ready for such research and development."

The comment was true. GAIC's focus had been training, and it did not have the staff, know-how, facilities nor the market or customers.

The UCAV sector in China at that time was largely dominated by three institutions – the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (BUAA, also known as Beihang), the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics (NUAA), and Northwestern Polytechnical University. No industrial firms had any share in it.

GAIC was encouraged to collaborate with BUAA to ask the Aviation Industry Corporation of China for support, and a joint venture was eventually cemented on Dec. 25 that year.

Before long, the company got its first order from the military, which gave the UCAV company confidence and solved its pressing financial burdens. However, as Yang recounted, the military insisted it would only pay the money if the UCAV meets all its demands.

Years of toil were eventually rewarded after the test flight of GAIC's first prototype UCAV, scheduled for Dec. 26, 2008. "We specially picked Mao Zedong's birthday to launch our product," Yang said.

On the day, vehicles were packed in the roads outside the airport, along with around a thousand people, who gathered to witness the scene. Among the crowd was Wang Fuxin, an 84-year-old retired man from Harbin, northeast China's Heilongjiang Province, who came to Guizhou Province in the 1960s to support regional development. "At GAIC we now have our own UCAV. I am so proud of it," he said.

The crowd applauded as the UCAV took off, but they did not know that soon after the vehicle was airborne, its altimeter malfunctioned.

The reading on the altimeter remained at 70 centimeters. According to Yang, the loss of altitude data meant that the aircraft was unable to land, but it had a narrow escape. The GAIC's remote-control pilot tried various maneuvers so that the ground crew could manually detect its altitude.

As the plane touched ground, the whole research team were moved to tears. The scheduled 27-minute flight ended up lasting 74 minutes.

Later, the team discovered the problem was due to poor electromagnetic shielding. The altimeter receiver picked up signals from the fuselage, so it was unable to detect the true altitude.

The accidents actually served a stress test for GAIC's response to an emergency. The staff remained unruffled while ensuring the plane's safe landing.

Zhang Xiang, former Deputy Commander of the PLA's Second Artillery Force, who watched the test flight, praised the GAIC team. He said, "High-tech equipment cannot be flawless, but your composed attitude in a crisis has put you among the first class."

Apart from displaying GAIC's professionalism, the accident also forced the staff to conduct a manual aerial maneuver, which was due in six months.

In the same year, WZ-2000 formally entered military service, and became China's first industrially produced UCAV. One year later, GAIC unveiled its second generation UCAV, capable of "surgical strikes." Insiders claim that it can rival the US Predator.

Yang said, "The United States, Britain and China lead the world in UCAV technologies. Guizhou represents the highest level in China."

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