The drone (pictured above) appears to be small, possibly no more than a dozen feet in length. Since it was spotted far from land in the company of Chinese warships, it’s likely that the flying robot is launched from the helicopter flight deck of a frigate or destroyer — though the exact methods of launch and recovery remain unclear. (U.S. naval drones use catapults or take off vertically.) The UAV’s apparent small size implies a limited range and basic sensors, particularly given China’s problems building robots and advanced military electronics.
The circumstances of the pilotless plane’s revelation could offer hints about its role. Early this month, the Chinese navy sailed 11 warships through international waters between two Japanese islands. The two-week deployment — a new, semi-annual tradition for the rapidly-expanding Chinese navy — was probably meant as a display of strength, and included target practice for the ships’ crews.
It just so happens, a drone is an excellent way to spot targets for long-range gunfire and missiles — especially for a navy that lacks the ultra-high-tech satellites the U.S. Navy takes for granted. And what could be more impressive for foreign audiences than “accidentally” letting the Japanese photograph the new UAV in action?
A recent New York Times article described the current state-of-the-art in American drones, from 200-foot spy balloons to 4-inch “hummingbirds”.