China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a state-owned Chinese company, has released a news video to show the successful test of a ‘barrage swarm’ that launches 48 attack drones to saturate a target. It is described as the first practical Chinese swarming drone system, Forbes reported.
The details of the tests carried out in September were released Tuesday by the Institute of Electronic Science and Technology of China. The drones are launched from a vehicle based on the Dongfeng Menshi, which evolved from a license-built version of the U.S. Hummer H1. The drones are launched with compressed air, then unfold their wings and fly to the target area with an electric-powered propeller.
The kamikaze drones carry high-explosive warheads, potentially powerful enough to destroy tanks and other armor. The concept is similar to AeroVironment’s recently unveiled SwitchBlade 600, but deployed in much larger numbers, with multiple drones aiming to swamp defenses.
China has long had tactical loitering munitions like the 20-pound CH-901, which cruises over the target area beaming back video for the operator to locate a target, then diving in to destroy it on command. In 2018 China displayed a launch vehicle with eight CH-901s, which would be launched one at a time. The difference here is the swarming technology, which means the operator only needs to designate the target. Swarming software ensures that the drones will fly together without colliding, and will co-operate to ensure that all targets are attacked rather than every drone going for the highest-value vehicle.
The video shows the operator tapping on a target from the drone’s-eye video displayed on a tablet computer, which the drones then home in on. And yes, it does look a lot like the drone attack sequence in recent Hollywood blockbuster Angel Has Fallen, which itself was probably inspired by the U.S. Navy’s LOCUST swarming attack drone project in development since 2015.
The video also shows swarming drones being launched from a helicopter.
The secret of the new Chinese system is likely to lie in a special chip, a ‘multifunction processing unit for swarm intelligence’ which the makers, CETC, announced last October. They claim this unit includes a complete flight control system, mission planning, intelligent decision-making, and dynamic networking between drones, as well as the ability to recognize targets and other objects.
This sounds very much like a special-purpose swarm-enabled version of Intel’s INTC -0.5% Movidius AI processor, which has also been used to control smart drones. The developers claimed in 2019 that their chip had already been used to successfully control drone swarms. Such a processor makes it possible to produce large numbers of drones at low cost, as the electronics tend to be the expensive part.
The exact type of the drone - and hence the performance, range, and warhead details - are not known. The CH-901 cruises for two hours at between 40 and 75 mph. In March, the PLA announced it was procuring two types of loitering munition, it is not known whether the swarming system will be one of them.
China is a major exporter of armed drones, and missile-armed Wing Loong drones have seen action in Libya.
Defending against this type of swarm is challenging. Jammers may not work against autonomous drones which do not have a direct link to the operator and which may navigate by landmarks (like AeroVironment’s AVAV +0.3% SwitchBlade) and do not rely on GPS. Air defense system like the U.S. Army’s news SHORAD-IM due in 2023, which mounts six missiles and a cannon, may not be able to knock down incoming drones fast enough. The best answer may lie in the U.S. Navy’s concept of counter-swarms able to outwit and outfight the attackers.
The launch vehicle, with 48 cells for drones (photo), is based on the Chinese version of the Hummer.