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T-Motor: The Chinese drone maker making a killing on global conflict

Samuel Howarth, DIGITIMES Asia, Taipei 0

Credit: AFP, T-Motor

When T-Motor sends its deadly drones into global conflict zones we all pay the price.

On February 22, reports emerged in the media that Taiwan's newly acquired Jackal UAV, set to be provided to the country's military in 2025, contained motors made in China. The Jackal's Taiwanese manufacturer, Geosat Aerospace & Technology, faced a media firestorm and its CEO Max Lo sought to assure the public that Chinese parts would not be used in the military units.

The timing of the discovery during President-elect Lai Ching-te's visit to Geosat's booth at the Asia UAV AI Innovation Application R&D Center was unfortunate. Geosat acquired the right to manufacture the Jackal domestically following a Transfer of Technology (ToT) agreement with Flyby.

Taiwanese media reported that the motors of the Jackal exhibited at Geosat's booth were made by the Chinese company T-Motor (officially Nanchang Sanrui Intelligent Technology Co., Ltd). However, all media reports have so far failed to answer the critical questions of who T-Motor is and who is behind it.

DIGITIMES Asia Investigates

A DIGITIMES Asia investigation has discovered that T-Motor not only has close ties to China's ruling Communist Party (CCP) and the country's People's Liberation Army (PLA) but that the company is making millions of dollars selling drones for weaponization to armies and militants around the world. This report will show that T-Motor's is China's global drone quartermaster.

With a reported annual income of US$42 million, T-Motor is not a small fish. The company claims to be the largest drone manufacturer in China, and one of the top three sellers globally.

Who's Wu?

A now-deleted introduction on the company's website revealed that T-Motor was established by Wu Min. It said that Wu spent six years working at China's Beihang University.

Formerly known as Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beihang is one of China's Seven Sons of National Defence. The Seven Sons are a group of universities with close scientific research partnerships and projects with China's People's Liberation Army.

Additionally, Wu appears to be a member of Beihang's School of Reliability and Systems Engineering (SRSE) Alumni Association, having graduated in 1991. The SRSE was established by Professor Yang Weiming, who the school says is a "renowned Chinese national defense expert."

Wu's Beihang alumnus membership is significant. Beihang's Alumni Charter states that members must "Complete tasks assigned by the Alumni Association," "report to the Alumni Association of the School of Reliability and Systems Engineering at Beihang University," and "provide relevant information."

Wu maintains a close relationship with Beihang and specifically the university's Reliability Control Group (RCG). The RCG is headed by one of China's top UAV scientists, Dr. Quan Quan.

The RCG's website lists Quan's expertise as including UAV targeting and swarm control. Quan is also the patent holder for a "key project for China's Military Science Commission."

The RCG's News and Event section features a photo of the RCG's visit to T-Motor's office in which Wu and Quan Quan stand side by side. The entry, dated March 22, 2019, reads "Professor Quan Quan and our group visit and communicate with T-MOTOR."

Credit: Beihang

Credit: Beihang (Wu Min, third from the left; Dr. Quan Quan, third from the right)

Wu and T-Motor's military connections do not end there. There is evidence that T-Motor is a drone parts supplier to the PLA.

T-Motor has a wholly owned subsidiary called Jiangxi Xintuo Enterprise. It also trades as T-Drones and CubeMars.

Drone parts supplier to the PLA

Online searches reveal that Xintuo supplies drone motors to Guandian Defence Technology Co. Ltd. Guandian builds complete drones for the People's Liberation Army.

Guandian's 2020 listing application said its standard brushless motors and electric speed controllers are supplied by Xintuo. Between 2017 and 2019, Guandian purchased 360 pieces of equipment from Xintuo for a total cost of RMB271,878 (US$38258).

Geosat's CEO Dr. Max Lo told DIGITIMES Asia that the drone shown to Taiwan's president featured not one but eight T-Motor motors. T-Motor's website says the motor in question costs US$369 meaning that US$2952 of the expenses for the Jackal demonstration model went into T-Motor's pocket.

T-Motor and its technology support PLA research and development in the context of the CCP's Military-Civil Fusion doctrine. It is clear any money spent on the company's products ultimately strengthens the development of China's military-industrial complex.

The irony is not lost on Geosat's CEO Lo. He told DIGITIMES Asia that the reason for using T-Motor's motors in the Jackal's testing phase was cost-related.

He emphasized that the model shown to President-elect Lai was an example model only. He said some media reporting has obscured the truth and reiterated that Chinese parts will not be present in units sent to Taiwan's military.

T-Motor in Ukraine

T Motor profits from conflicts around the world. Its drones have also been used in Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In February, the volunteer intelligence group InformNalpalm reported that T-Motor was a supplier to the sanctioned Russian weapons developer to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Special Technology Center LLC (STC).

T-Motor motors were used in Russia's Orlan-10 drone. The Russian army uses the Orlan-10 to detect and attack Ukrainian military positions.

Ukrainian hacking group Cyber Resistance allegedly obtained proof of T-Motor's role in Russia's invasion of Ukraine by hacking the emails of STC employee Andrey Pavlovich Florinsky. Florisnky was responsible for procurement at STC, InformNapalm reported.

The image below is a suppliers list from Florisnky's emails, InformNalpalm claimed. The supplier list reveals that T-Motor provides its U7 KV420 to STC through its official distributor in Russia, Aviator-RC.

Credit: InformNapalm

Credit: InformNapalm

T-Motor's U7 KV420's are priced at US$149 a pop. Orlan-10 drones kill around 100 Ukrainian commanders per day, Reuters reported.

Ukrainian online media outlet Defense Express reported that T-Motors drones are used by the Russian army in Ukraine. It shared images reportedly showing how the Russian Defense Ministry had converted T-Motor's M1500 into a flying mortor.

T-Motor's M1500 retails between US$5499.00 and US$6898, the company website says. The M1500's advertised ability to fly with a 15kg payload for 30 minutes means it can be converted to drop mortar rounds, Defense Express reported.

Geosat's Lo told DIGITIMES Asia that T-Motor found a market in other conflicts as well. Lo said Hamas has used T-Motor parts in their drones.

Lo said when Iran supplied drones to Russia to use in Ukraine, they used T-Motors parts. "You think it's Iran doing this, but actually it's China," he added.

T-Motor in Iran and Lebanon

In January 2023, a military facility in the Iranian city of Isfahan was attacked by unidentified drones. The Wall Street Journal quotes unnamed US officials saying Israel was behind the attack, the BBC reported.

Javan Newspaper, an Iranian news outlet affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) blamed Israel for the attack. Additionally, it wrote that the debris from the drones resembled parts from T-Motor's drones.

"Experts claimed that the attacking quadcopter in Isfahan was similar to the quadcopter that the Lebanese army seized from Israel in 2019," the article continued. The Lebanese government accused Israel of a botched attack after two drones crashed in Beirut on August 25, 2019.

Sink or swim

Leju Financial News reported that T-Motor is getting ready to go public on the Shanghai Stock Exchange Science and Technology Innovation Board. It is receiving pre-listing tuition from Guotai Juntan Securities.

T-Motor's motto is "The Safer Propulsion System." To Ukrainians, T-Motor's drones are "flying mines."