Here's What You Need to Know: A solid manufacturing base puts Beijing in a strong position to build large numbers of small attack drones.
China has a history of overwhelming its enemies with sheer numbers of troops.
Now, China may have a modern iteration on that tactic: swarms of tiny rocket-armed helicopter drones that will swamp enemy forces like angry bees.
“China’s domestically developed helicopter drones carrying proximity explosive mortar shells, grenade launchers and machine guns can now form swarms and engage in coordinated strikes,” according to Chinese newspaper Global Times, citing a statement by the Guangdong-based Zhuhai Ziyan company, which makes unmanned aerial vehicles. The system was also displayed at a recent Turkish defense trade show.
“With a single push of a button, the drones can autonomously take off, avoiding colliding in the air and finding their way to their designated target,” Global Times said. “Once they receive an order to attack, they will engage the target autonomously in a coordinated manner. Upon finishing a mission, the system will lead the drones back to base and land automatically. The operator does not need to expose himself or herself in a dangerous frontline as the drones can easily be controlled remotely.”
Up to ten heli-drones can be assembled into a swarm, with Artificial Intelligence guiding and coordinating the group. “The 10 drones can be a combination of different types, including those that can drop proximity explosive mortar shells, while others can carry grenade launchers, or make suicide attacks,” said Global Times.
Zhuhai Ziyan offers multiple types of armed mini-drones. In 2018, it unveiled the Blowfish A2, which resembles a camel with a rotor stuck into its hump. The six-foot-long, two-foot-high drone has a speed of 130 kilometers (81 miles) per hour. It can be armed with 60-millimeter mortar shells and or a 40-millimeter grenade launcher.
“Other helicopter drones include the Infiltrator, which can launch rockets and missiles, and the Parus S1, which sacrifices itself to blow up the target,” Global Times said. Zhuhai Ziyan is now working on the Blowfish A3, slightly larger than the A2 and armed with “multiple types of machine guns and features a different aerodynamic design allowing the gun to shoot at more angles mid-flight.”
Zhuhai Ziyan claims to have had “numerous inquiries from multiple foreign companies,” suggesting that the company is willing to sell or license its technology.
China is hardly the first nation to explore swarm attacks by small drones. America’s DARPA research agency is working on Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics, or OFFSET, which envisions humans as drone resource managers, using a video game-like virtual reality to control formations of hundreds of small unmanned aircraft during urban battles. A 2018 test of DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environments (CODE) demonstrated how a drone swarm, when communications with its human controllers were disrupted, could still find and strike targets simply by the AI following the intent of the mission plan.
Russia also has experience with drone swarms—but as a target. In 2018, a gaggle of small unmanned aircraft, armed with explosives, were launched by Syrian rebels at a Russian airbase in Syria. Russia claimed to have shot down seven and hijacked their radio links to take control of another six.
What’s particularly interesting about a Chinese drone swarm is China’s predominance in drone production. Chinese manufacturer DJI makes nearly 80 percent of the drones used in the United States and Canada (U.S. authorities recently warned these robots could be stealing data from their users). Such a solid manufacturing base puts Beijing in a strong position to build large numbers of small attack drones.
This article first appeared in May 2019.