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“Chinese firms want to steer clear of war, Russia and Ukraine are small markets for them,” expert says of China’s drone export restriction

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The Chinese government has imposed export controls on some drones and drone-related equipment to prevent their use in the war in Ukraine. The restrictions, which come into force starting September 1, will affect drones that meet the following characteristics:

  • equipped with a throwing device;
  • having an empty weight of more than 4 kg and take-off weight of more than 7 kg;
  • equipped with a multispectral camera;
  • maximum autonomous operation time of more than 30 minutes;
  • capable of flying beyond the natural visibility of operators;
  • equipped with radio equipment with a power higher than that allowed for civilian radio equipment.

Sergei Tovkach, CEO of unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) developer Avianovatsii, told The Insider that Chinese companies had already implemented measures to prevent their products from being used by the warring parties. In that light, the recent government decision regarding drones appeared expected:

“Chinese businesses don't want to have anything to do with the war — the Russian and Ukrainian markets are too small for them. They’re mainly interested in Europe and the United States, and in these markets, a manufacturer can easily be banned if it is accused of supporting armed hostilities.
China is adopting a prudent approach by banning sales in both markets [Russian and Ukrainian — The Insider] simultaneously. Even major manufacturers refrain from supplying printed circuit boards to Russia or Ukraine. While Ukrainians have some leeway, being able to pay for them and deliver them through intermediaries. Russia has to get even trickier, as payment systems do not work.”

According to the expert, the Chinese company DJI (the world's largest manufacturer of commercial UAVs) has started to block its drones from flying over specific territories and conflict zones. To circumvent the ban, both Russia and Ukraine began creating proxy circuit boards that allow them to “trick” the drone and enable flight in prohibited areas.

Mass-produced Chinese drones
Video provided by Sergei Tovkach

One of the newly imposed restrictions will focus on multispectral cameras, which have the capability to perform thermal imaging and capture the visible spectrum simultaneously. For example, Mavic 3T drones used in aerial reconnaissance are equipped with these cameras. Another ban concerns UAVs that exceed a specific weight threshold.

“Mass implies that the drone can be used as an ammunition carrier. The heavier the drone, the more ammunition it can carry. The Chinese want to ban heavy drones that carry mortar shells as well as [drones] that are blatantly used as bombers. These vehicles are often called ‘witch’ or ‘Baba Yaga.’ Down the line, they’ll get tougher on the rest of the drones, that's for sure.”

However, Tovkach is confident that drones composed of Chinese parts will continue to be utilized in Ukraine, regardless of the restrictions:

“They won't ban individual components. There’ll always be ‘gray’ export. For example, the same DJI drone can be blocked so that it flies only inside China, and you have to reprogram it. It's getting harder all the time because DJI is really working to keep their drones out of war zones. But if I buy the camera separately, buy the transmitter separately, make the frame myself, make the autopilot myself as well, or buy it and assemble it all myself — who's going to stop me? It’ll all just contribute to DIY and in-house assembly.
The development of full-fledged drones is out of the question both [in Russia] and in Ukraine — for now. [Russia] has the Orlan and Supercam, and the best drones in Ukraine are made by the Odesa-based company Shark. But these are exceptions. Most of them are assembled from Chinese components, which will be available for a very long time.”

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