China develops military drones capable of 'splitting'
The moment the Chinese drone splits in the air in the photo posted on March 19. Photo: Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics

The military drone model developed by China has the ability to divide into many smaller ones, a technology that is said to be able to “change the landscape of the battlefield”.

Chinese media reported on March 19 that scientists at Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics have developed a “unique” small unmanned aerial vehicle (drone).

On the outside, the drone looks no different from civilian drone models like the DJI line. A special feature is that it can split “in the blink of an eye” into two, three or 6 smaller drones, depending on combat needs.

Each drone has only one propeller but can move and fly freely. The “baby drones” have the ability to communicate and coordinate with each other to perform tasks in which each plays a unique role, from command, reconnaissance, and target capture to attack.

Chinese media said this is a technology that has the ability to “change the battlefield” and can disable current air defense systems.

Air defense systems operate by automatically allocating response resources based on the number of drones appearing on the radar. But if the number of drones suddenly increases, as in the case of “clones” of Chinese drones, the air defense system will be overloaded and unable to intercept effectively. This could also cause “psychological shock” to defense forces, affecting their ability to react, according to Chinese media.

The development team said that the obstacle to drone separation technology is that flight performance will be significantly reduced when combining multiple drones into one, but they have overcome this limitation.

Nanjing University’s drone model has nearly twice the flight performance of similarly sized drones. Even after “splitting,” the flight performance of each drone is still 40% higher than that of conventional small drones.

According to the development team, their drone model is inspired by maple seeds. This type of seed possesses a unique aerodynamic structure in which the cotyledon acts as a wing. When the seed falls, it will rotate and create lift, helping it to float and even fly high in low conditions.

American Lockheed Martin Corporation 2012 also took inspiration from maple seeds to develop a drone with a continuously rotating lens capable of stably tracking targets and recording high-resolution images. 

However, this type of drone cannot fly for long periods of time or perform complex tasks independently due to battery and payload limitations. A number of other countries have subsequently developed similar drone models, but none have been practically applied on a large scale.

After much research and testing, the development team from Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics determined the right propeller shape to help the drone fly far, both in its merged form and after separation. They also designed the physical model and specialized control software to meet the special operating mechanism of this drone line.

Another advantage is that it has a modular design, allowing soldiers to assemble and configure it according to their needs right in the field, providing a tactical advantage.

After the outbreak of war in Ukraine, China stepped up research and development efforts in the field of military drones to prepare for future conflict scenarios and achieved a number of achievements.

Chinese media said earlier this month that scientists in this country had successfully developed a drone model with the ability to flap its wings most like a bird ever, named “Xiaosun” (Little Kestrel).

Experts say this feature will make it difficult for the drone to be detected by enemy air defense systems. However, some observers are still cautious about the actual effectiveness of Chinese drones because they have not been tested in large-scale conflicts.