Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Drones from company that “strongly opposes” military use marketed with bombs attached

A forthcoming drone made by Autel, a Chinese electronics manufacturer and drone-maker, is being marketed using images of the unmanned aerial vehicle carrying a payload of what appears to be explosive shells. The images were discovered just two months after the company condemned the military use of its flying robots.

Two separate online retail preorder listings for the $52,000 Autel Titan drone, with a cargo capacity of 22 pounds and an hour of flight time, advertised a surprising feature: the ability to carry (and presumably fire) weapons.

In response to concerns from China-hawk lawmakers in the U.S. over Autel’s alleged connections to the Chinese government and its “potentially supporting Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine,” according to a congressional inquiry into the firm, Autel issued a public statement disowning battlefield use of its drones: “Autel Robotics strongly opposes the use of drone products for military purposes or any other activities that infringe upon human rights.” A month later, it issued asecond, similarly worded denial: “Autel Robotics is solely dedicated to the development and production of civilian drones. Our products are explicitly designed for civilian use and are not intended for military purposes.”

It was surprising, then, when Spanish engineer and drone enthusiast Konrad Iturbe discovered a listing for the Titan drone armed to the teeth on, an authorized reseller of Autel products. While most of the product images are anodyne promotional photos showing the drone from various angles, including carrying a generic cargo container, three show a very different payload: what appears to be a cluster of four explosive shells tucked underneath, a configuration similar to those seen in bomb-dropping drones deployed in Ukraine and elsewhere. Samuel Bendett, an analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, told The Intercept that the shells resembled mortar rounds. Arms analyst Patrick Senft said the ordnance shown might actually be toy replicas, as they “don’t resemble any munitions I’ve seen deployed by UAV.”

Contacted by email, an OBDPRICE representative who identified themselves only as “Alex” told The Intercept: “The drone products we sell cannot be used for military purposes.” When asked why the site was then depicting the drone product in question carrying camouflage-patterned explosive shells, they wrote: “You may have misunderstood, those are some lighting devices that help our users illuminate themselves at night.” The site has not responded to further queries, but shortly after being contacted by The Intercept, the mortar-carrying images were deleted.

Drones for sale on ebay
A “heavy lift” drone made by Autel, a Chinese electronics manufacturers listed for resale on eBay on Jan. 5, 2023, showing Autel’s renderings of the drone carrying a payload of camouflage-clad explosives.Screenshot: The Intercept

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