Traffic police in China are using drones to give orders from above

Laurie Chen

“The handsome young lad on the black electric scooter in dark green clothes and glasses – please put on your helmet!”

A surprised scooter rider and others waiting at a red traffic light in southeast China look around to see where the announcement is coming from. The rider then puts on his helmet.

Had he looked up, he would have seen that the order came from above – from a police-operated drone hovering over the intersection in the city of Putian, Fujian province.

Shaky camera footage of the incident, apparently filmed by a passer-by on Wednesday, was shared on social media by state broadcaster CCTV on Friday. It quickly went viral on Weibo, China’s Twitter, racking up 34 million views within four hours.

The drone is one of two manufactured by DJI that police in Putian have been using to monitor motorists since last September. They have helped to identify 2,184 traffic offences since the beginning of this year, Shanghai-based news site Thepaper.cn reported on Thursday.

Who me? A scooter rider reacts as he is told to put on his helmet at an intersection in Putian, Fujian province, in footage apparently filmed by a passer-by. Photo: Weibo

Ten police officers are on the team that controls the drones, which can fly up to 50 metres above their surveillance targets. The drones can fly for a maximum of 30 minutes at a time and are equipped with an electronic sound broadcasting system, the report said.

One police officer, who was not identified, told the website the drones had detected traffic offences such as vehicles being driven without licence plates, motorists running red lights and driving in the wrong lanes, and scooter riders not wearing helmets.

Weibo users mostly reacted to the video with humour. “If someone called me a handsome guy, I’d be very pleased with myself,” one person commented.

The “handsome young lad” puts his helmet on after the police announcement. Photo: Weibo

But some have previously voiced security and privacy concerns online about drones being used for surveillance. In March, for example, there was widespread debate over traffic drones in the southern city of Nanning, Guangxi, after more than 400 traffic tickets were issued in the previous month as a result of their use, according to The Beijing News.

“Drones flying in the air, it’s hard to say if they’re able to capture what goes on through the windows of people’s homes,” one person wrote on Weibo.

Another said: “Wouldn’t it be awkward if they photographed people being intimate outside.”

DJI hit by American technology supplier’s ban on Chinese-made drones over security concerns

Privacy issues were a key concern with the widespread use of drones, China University of Political Science and Law professor Zhu Wei told The Beijing News.

He said many people were worried that drones could threaten their safety and privacy, even if they were being used by the authorities to enforce the law.

The use of surveillance drones by traffic police has grown in popularity since the technology was first pioneered in 2016 in the southern megacity of Shenzhen in Guangdong. That system detects a traffic crime once every three minutes on average, according to a China News Service report.

Shenzhen authorities say the technology has improved traffic law enforcement and helped police to clamp down on offences such as speeding and motorists occupying emergency lanes.

Traffic drone monitoring has since been rolled out to other major cities such as Shanghai, Wuhan and Chengdu, as well as provinces and regions including Fujian, Shandong, Guangxi and Shaanxi, according to trade news website China Security and Defence Expo.

As well as law enforcement, drones are also used for firefighting and environmental monitoring, and Chinese authorities have even used them to combat cheating during the national university entrance exams, while private companies use them for logistics purposes.

Last month, 600 government-operated drones were used to put on a patriotic light show at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong border.

China has also been developing hi-tech drones for military purposes in recent years.

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