The rise of drones: Wing Loong vs. Reaper


While historical societies may reenact battles in which both sides wore brightly-colored uniforms and charged at each other from opposite sides of a battlefield, today’s military places much more emphasis on discretion. Modern armies dress their soldiers in camouflage uniform and generally much prefer strategic attacks to all-out assault. They also tend to prefer to save human troops for situations when their talents can be put to best use.

The Rise of The Drone

There are many reasons why commanders and strategists appreciate options to use technology in place of human troops. In practical terms, they do not suffer from tiredness (either physical or mental) and are immune to the sort of mental-health and substance abuse issues which has identified as a serious challenge for humans, particularly for those in stressful environments, such as those regularly encountered by the U.S. military.

General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper
General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper

They can also be built from the ground up to operate in challenging terrains in which even the strongest humans have difficulty. In ethical terms, it is far easier to risk the destruction of a machine than the death of a human. The fact that at present time, there is no robot, not even ASIMO, which has even come close to replicating human judgment simply means that technology has to be deployed under close human supervision. Traditionally this has meant that a human has had to be present in the same location as the technology, in a tank or submarine for example, but today, the rise and rise of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or drones as they are more commonly known is changing the nature of modern warfare.

The Chengdu Pterodactyl I (Wing Loong) is a Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), developed by the Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group in the People’s Republic of China.

What Are Drones (And Who Makes Them)?

Drones are essentially ultra-light aircraft, which are capable of carrying equipment but not passengers or even significant cargo. They are controlled remotely. A local operator manages take-off and landing and once in the air the drone either follows a previously-programed route or links to a satellite which allows it to communicate with an operator anywhere in the world. At any point in time, it can transmit images to interested parties, be they troops in the area or central intelligence.

The technology behind the drones themselves is nothing particularly spectacular. They are essentially larger and more sophisticated versions of the remote-control planes children have used for generations, but the equipment they carry has become increasingly useful and versatile enabling both effective surveillance even at night and targeted strikes.

Chengdu Pterodactyl I (Wing Loong)
Chengdu Pterodactyl I (Wing Loong)

It’s hardly surprising that the U.S. and Israel have long been at the forefront of UAV development and deployment. The U.S. military’s flagship product is the Reaper (formerly known as the Predator B), which was originally designed purely for surveillance but is now able to be used with weaponry. Much of the information surrounding the UAV is classified, but there has been a great deal of publicity over UAV use in Pakistan, which gives a good indication of its capabilities.

The General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper (formerly named Predator B) is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capable of remote controlled or autonomous flight operations, developed by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems (GA-ASI) primarily for the United States Air Force.

The new pretender, equally unsurprisingly, is China, which has developed the Wing Loong as an affordable alternative to the Reaper. Details about its capabilities are currently scarce, but it is highly likely that this will change in the near future as China seeks to export its creation. The massive price difference between the two models is a clear sign that the Wing Loong is far less sophisticated than the Reaper, but that may not necessarily be a problem.

Drones And The World of Business

The arrival of the Wing Loong may well be a sign that drones, like the internet and mobile phones, are now poised to move out of the field of combat and into the civilian world. Typically this transition starts with their being adopted by industry until the economics of mass production bring prices down to a level that consumers can afford. While civilian drones are unlikely to carry weaponry, their surveillance capabilities potentially have a huge variety of applications in peacetime. In short, drones are likely to be more efficient and more affordable than humans when it comes to undertaking tasks involving observation in remote areas. They can, for example, be used by farmers as a convenient way of managing large areas of land or by those monitoring wildlife in remote locations. These tasks do not require the sophistication of the Reaper but may be ideal for its more affordable Chinese counterpart.