Government officials from Chaoyang District in Jilin’s Changchun city established its Drone Law Enforcement Unit (无人机执法中队) in May, with the new division actively taking on city management duties.

Drones with cameras are connected via a smart remote operation system equipped with an iPad-like screen. Trained law enforcement officers control the drones to patrol, monitor, and investigate areas where human forces are unable to access.

A law enforcement officer controls a drone to check on a construction field. (Image Credit: Changchun Daily)

According to reports, the first few missions the unit conducted included a patrol over a construction field. The police officer controlling the drone could clearly see geographical details of the field. Construction workers and waste management’s positions were also available.

Changchun province started to experiment with drone technology in city management in 2016. Liu Yong, a Chaoyang district government official, said drones could complete some tasks that would take a whole day for the team in just two or three hours. He expects the unit to take on more substantial responsibilities such as collecting construction information from tall buildings, remotely patrolling riversides, and examining railroads.

Liu and local media didn’t disclose the manufacturer of the drones or any other detailed technological information.

Changchun is just one example of China’s smart city development initiatives and is not an isolated case of drones being used in governance.  A municipal management and law enforcement department in Weihai city released a government-backed drone purchase bidding notice (in Chinese) on the official website of the Ministry of Finance. The bid will open on July 13. On June 14, a local communication service provider from Hebei, a neighboring province to Beijing, confirmed an RMB 2.4 billion deal for a smart city management and drone communication technology service project (智慧城管无人机信息技术服务项目).

While the public may be more familiar with DJI’s commercial entertainment drones, the company also covers traffic monitoring and infrastructure examination with technologies including thermal imaging.

Thermal imaging for infrastructure operation and safety checks. (Credit Image: official website of Unmanned Aerial Systems Training Center, the drone operation training affiliate of drone manufacturer DJI)

Infrastructure examination is another increasingly mature use case of drones’ management and monitoring capabilities. Two examples are the connection of high-voltage electricity pylons and real-time observation of the electricity grid. As cables and power stations can be located in remote and dangerous areas, accurately and safely connecting electricity pylons and cables can be hard for human labor. On May 14, 2018, in Xinjiang, a drone successfully established a cable connection between two electricity stations located around cliffs and waterfalls.

The concept of drones patrolling electricity grids and monitoring other infrastructure was proposed a decade ago by AirWing (中飞艾维), a drone patrol and monitoring company. The company cooperates with state power companies including State Grid. Apart from monitoring electricity infrastructure, wind power infrastructure, and photovoltaic cell factories, AirWing drones also carry sensors to monitor air pollution.