Taiwanese drone makers strive to conquer the global defense market

Misha Lu, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

NCSIST's Cardinal III UAV on display at TADTE. Credit: DIGITIMES

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) technology has been a prominent feature at the Taiwan Aerospace and Defence Technology Exhibition (TADTE) 2023. The event gathered leading international defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman alongside newly emerging defense players like AeroVironment, which makes the Switchblade loitering munitions that gained prominence on the Ukrainian battlefield. Also Included at the exhibition are Taiwanese companies like Geosat Aerospace & Technology Inc. (Geosat) which has recently come under spotlight among a group of seven civilian drone manufacturers participating in a public tender to supply civilian grade reconnaissance drones for Taiwan's armed forces.

Traditionally, Taiwan's state-owned National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST), which also develops Taiwan's "Hsiung Feng" family of anti-ship missiles, has been the sole player in the military drone sector, with products like the anti-radiation loitering munition "Chien Hsiang" and the "Albatross I" reconnaissance drone already in volume production.

In an effort to boost the civilian sector's drone manufacturing capability, Taiwan's defense ministry decided in September 2022 to open the procurement process of five types of small and medium-size commercial grade reconnaissance drones to civilian players, with Geosat, Coretronic Intelligent Robotics Corp. (CIRC) and Thunder Tiger Group among the nine companies selected to participate in the first round of bidding process. Prototypes already entered trial production in July and are undergoing tests. It is understood that components sourced from China are prohibited in the drones.

Amid the global trend to remove China-made products from national security-related sectors and the tightening ban on China's DJI drones placed by the US government, in fact, Taiwanese drone suppliers have been eager to fill in the vacuum. As of 2022, according to Drone Industry Insights, DJI accounted for more than 70% of the global drone market that was estimated at US$30.6 billion. Even though the hope is partly hinged on the fact that some Taiwan-made components were already in DJI supply chain, such as Inpaq Technology's GPS and WiFi modules, Holtek's microcontrollers and Chicony Power's power supplies, Taiwanese drone makers also had to source from China for cost reduction or other countries, particularly when it comes to subsystems like engines, batteries, and electro-optical payload.

For drone engines, though certain Taiwanese companies have the design capabilities, manufacturing was frequently outsourced to China out of cost concerns. In terms of Taiwan's military-grade drones, while smaller and less sophisticated engines are placed on loitering munitions like "Chien Hsiang'', larger and heavier platforms like "Teng Yun" have to adopt Honeywell's TPE331 turboprop engines - also found in General Atomics' MQ-9 Reapers.

For the advanced thermal imaging and opto-electronic tracking subsystems used in Teng Yun and Albatross II drones, NCSIST reportedly has to turn to foreign suppliers as well. Apart from engine and opto-electronic systems, a larger degree of autonomy is also needed in drone communication and fire control system development, as it is related to integration with domestically-produced weapon systems.

Speaking to DIGITIMES Asia at TADTE, a source from the NCSIST saw a synergetic relation between the institute and the private drone sector in which the former dominates military-grade drones with striking capabilities, such as Teng Yun and the second generation of Albatross currently under development, while the private sector develops and manufactures smaller reconnaissance drones aided by NCSIST technology transfers.

Though the institute is tasked with transferring certain key drone technologies to the private sector, including those pertaining to brushless generators and digital drive controllers, technologies that allow drones to integrate with military command & control systems, such as encrypted data link, are still dominated by the NCSIST.

In the meantime, despite the government's long-term goal to build a complete and independent drone ecosystem in Taiwan, the focus for now is to get final assembly done in Taiwan. Geosat, for instance, is to manufacture and assemble the Albatross II drones, while the design and system integration were done by the NCSIST. In the long-run, Taiwan's drone makers, especially those in the defense sector, will inevitably face the challenge to find a balance between supply chain autonomy and cost reduction, as cost is a key variable underpinning the concept of asymmetric warfare, while cost reduction is only attainable when the market is big enough to incentivize scale-up production.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's state-owned airplane manufacturer Aerospace Industrial Development Corp. (AVIC), which has been working with Lockheed Martin to upgrade Taiwan's fleet of F-16s, told DIGITIMES Asia that though it has drone manufacturing capability based on its own extensive aircraft manufacturing experience and that it can assist Taiwanese drone makers with volume production, it has no intention to enter the drone development sector and compete with incumbents under current company policies.

Talking to DIGITIMES Asia on the sideline of TADTE 2023, retired US Marine Corps. Lt. General Steven Rudder shared his belief that large weapon platforms like F-35 or main battle tanks will still play a key role in future warfare, working in conjunction with asymmetrical weapons like drones. Back in May, the former commanding general of USMC forces in Pacific led a US defense industry delegation to Taiwan, seeking to enhance defense technology ties between the two countries.