The status of an unmanned Chinese military drone has been thrown into controversy after both its New Zealand airframe designer and its United States engine-maker sharply distanced themselves from the project.
The AT200 logistics drone, unveiled by Chinese firm Star UAV in 2017, is based on the P-750 airframe produced by Hamilton-based Pacific Aerospace, and defence commentators have flagged its military application in supplying isolated bases in the contested South China Sea and Himalayan regions.
Its conversion to a remote-controlled delivery vehicle by Star came into the limelight last week in a research paper presented to Parliament's justice select committee by Anne-Marie Brady as an example of transfer of technology with military applications to China from New Zealand.
Pacific Aerospace was part-acquired in 2014 by Chinese state-owned automotive and military giant BAIC, and a China-based joint venture factory opened in 2016.
Venerable defence trade publisher Janes reported early last year the AT200 was said to have successfully completed unmanned trial flights over the Qinling Mountains in October 2018 and had entered production, with first orders expected to be delivered to logistics firm SF Express.
Janes said it was likely the AT200 "will eventually be called upon to perform contract military deliveries" given SF Express had a strategic co-operation agreement with the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The UAV was said to be seen as particularly useful in supplying isolated island outposts in the disputed South China Sea region which were capable of hosting only rudimentary airstrips.
Janes UAV editor Kelvin Wong told the Herald from Singapore the parachute-drop capability and need for only a couple of hundred metres of runway to land and take off - compared to thousands for jet aircraft - made the AT200 particularly attractive to military users who needed to resupply far-flung outposts.
A report from the 2018 Singapore airshow said the AT200 was "the most interesting Chinese item on display" and quoted Star representatives saying they bought completed P-750s before flying them to China for UAV conversion.
But Pacific Aerospace chief executive Mark Crouch pushed back at these reports and said he was aware of only one P-750 having being converted into a drone, the prototype seen in 2017 and 2018 publicity displayed by Star, and he understood it had since been destroyed in a crash in October last year.
"We believe the whole thing is smoke and mirrors and ask anyone with evidence otherwise to front with it," Crouch said.
Crouch said he first learned of the AT200 when it was unveiled by Star in 2017 at the Zhuhai air show, but said his Hamilton factory had not sold any airframes to the company and their engine-supplier Pratt & Whitney had also "forbade" its powerplant being used in Chinese UAVs after learning of the conversion.
"At no point in this conversion were any Pacific Aerospace staff consulted or otherwise made aware of this project," Crouch said.
A spokesperson for Pratt & Whitney, a United States defence and aerospace giant whose Canadian subsidiary makes the engines for the P-750, said they had contacted Pacific Aerospace with concerns shortly after learning of the Chinese UAV conversion.
"There isn't a 'ban' on the engine, it just isn't certified for that mission type in China," the Pratt & Whitney spokesperson said.
Emails sent to Star in China this week seeking comment and with questions about their AT200 went unanswered.
Janes noted Star were also involved in the parallel development of an armed jet-powered drone called the Star Shadow. Company representatives who unveiled mock-ups of this sleek stealth drone at the 2018 Singapore airshow were recently said to no longer be able to discuss this project as it was now understood to be under consideration for service in the PLA Air Force.
Of the head-scratching taking place at Pacific Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney, Janes' Wong said: "I wouldn't be surprised if they had no knowledge of what's going on: This is really a Chinese-specific programme and [Pacific Aerospaces'] responsibility is to supply airframes and technical support. Whatever the client does with it is none of their business."
Crouch said it was possible his designs had been appropriated or reverse-engineered. "If this is the case we'd be hoping our Chinese joint venture will be taking appropriate action - but I don't really want to comment on that," he said.
"If it's happening, it's happening outside Pacific Aerospace's knowledge. We're not involved, we're not supplying engines. If there is something to it it's a 100 per cent China development."