China launches high-tech bird drones to watch over its citizens

They're called Doves and they don't come in peace.

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
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South China Morning Post

Look! Up there! A pretty little bird gliding majestically through the sky, encapsulating the beauty of natu -- oh wait. It's a high-tech surveillance drone.

Over recent years, more than 30 Chinese military and government agencies have reportedly been using drones made to look like birds to surveil citizens in at least five provinces, according to the South China Morning Post.

The program is reportedly codenamed "Dove" and run by Song Bifeng, a professor at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xi'an. Song was formerly a senior scientist on the Chengdu J-20, Asia's first fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, according to the Post.

The bird-like drones mimic the flapping wings of a real bird using a pair of crank-rockers driven by an electric motor. Each drone has a high-definition camera, GPS antenna , flight control system and a data link with satellite communication capability, the Post reports.

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While the "scale is still small", according to Yang Wenqing, a member of  Song's team who commented to the Post, the researchers "believe the technology has good potential for large-scale use in the future ... it has some unique advantages to meet the demand for drones in the military and civilian sectors."

Beijing's surveillance technologies, however discreet, can be avoided. But these drones will open a "new level of intrusiveness," Timothy R. Heath, senior international defense research analyst at global policy think tank The RAND Corporation, told CNET via email.

"Although the bird drones will likely be deployed in restive provinces like Xinjiang, any Chinese person should assume that their behavior could be under surveillance and their behavior recorded, no matter where they go outdoors," he said. "China's use of bird drones will extend the government's surveillance to a frightening new level." 

China also employs facial recognition, artificial intelligence, smart glasses and other technologies to monitor its 1.4 billion citizens with the aim of one day giving each of them a personal score based on how they behave.

Watch this: China turns to tech to monitor, shame, rate citizens

First published June 24, 9 p.m. PT.

Update, Aug. 2 at 4:55 p.m.: Adds comment from Timothy R. Heath.