China’s new armed quad-copter drones are being built specifically to engage hostile targets from ground level in urban combat environments — even engaging targets through windows — as a means of support for ground troops in the fight. This shift toward airborne drones for infantry support could mean that China’s “ground” drones could reach the fight sooner than America’s.
Both Russia and the United States have made great leaps in recent years in their efforts to field infantry robots to support ground troops. But despite these advances, infantry support drones continue to lag well behind their airborne counterparts. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) have already proven so effective that they’ve completely changed America’s approach to warfare. But the challenges of traversing complex terrain while keeping pace with war fighters, who are specially trained for adverse environments, has largely kept infantry-bots from the front lines — except in the one case when Russia did deploy their infantry-supporting Uran-6 to Syria, where it proved to be an embarrassing failure.
The Tianyi quadcopter is currently under development at Tianjin Zhongwei Aerospace Data System Technology, a subsidiary of a Chinese state-owned aerospace corporation. The platform was designed specifically for reconnaissance missions and close-range strikes against vehicles and personnel in urban environments. The platform is also designed with the intention of being affordable for foreign export markets.
“It is suitable for circumstances that include asymmetric combat, counterterrorism and special forces [operations] and street battles,” Tianjin Zhongwei said of the new drone.
The quadcopter design makes the drone stable and maneuverable, which is perfect, China believes, for close quarters combat environments like cramped city streets. Unlike ground-based infantry support drones, the terrain doesn’t matter to a quadcopter: it needs only enough space to operate its four propellers to stay airborne. Of course, being airborne also limits the ways in which it can interact with its environments — meaning this drone won’t be able to open doors, and likely would never attempt to enter buildings.
The drone is equipped with infrared and laser-based target detection systems for daytime or night operations, and is armed with two 50mm rockets with a claimed operational distance of up to one kilometer. It will be controlled by soldiers on the ground, with an operational radius of about three miles.
“It is light, cheap, adaptable and can easily survive in battle, so when [it is] mass-produced, the People’s Liberation Army could deploy this kind of mini-drone on the front line and improve [their] combat ability,” Chinese analyst Song Zhongping was quoted as saying to the Chinese press.