Chinese military experts say that integrated artificial intelligence (AI) drones could fly on their own, identify potential targets and make combat decisions, Global Times reported.

Speaking on the future of China’s military drones on a China Central Television (CCTV) program, Li Yidong, chief designer of China’s Wing Loong series drones, said, “AI is a huge field with many basic technologies, which are developing. We are doing all sorts of work to apply these technologies on drones, and also piloted aircraft.”

“We want [drones] to fly intelligently, have smart situational awareness, capable of identifying targets and automatically make some decisions,” Li said.

Drones are normally operated manually and remotely from ground stations, but the signals could be jammed in electric warfare and the aircraft could lose their combat capability, Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst, told the Global Times. “AI is a fundamental requirement for the development of fighter drones.”

Since lag time occurs in remote control over long distances, drones now have difficulty fighting air-to-air combat in which battle situations change very fast. But with AI, the drones can fight using their own judgment and without lag caused by data transmission, according to Wei.

AI developers must also consider the safety issue, as AI drones must still strictly follow human commands and not take unwished actions, analysts said. Technological issues also need to be sorted out, such as the development of the hardware and if the size of it can be fitted onto a drone.

The Wing Loong series of drones are domestically developed by the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China. At least 100 Wing Loong drones have been delivered for export.

According to Air Force Technology, the Wing Loong can be armed with a variety of weapons, including laser-guided bombs and missiles to attack and destroy air or ground-based targets. They have fired more than 3,000 rounds of live munitions on battlefields with an overall accuracy higher than 90%.

The electro-optical payload pod, fitted under the forward section of the fuselage, is integrated with day light and infrared cameras and sensors to collect surveillance and targeting data in both day and low-light/night conditions, the report said.

Powered by a 100-hp turbocharged engine, driving a three-bladed propeller, it has a maximum flight speed of 280km/h, can operate over a range of 4,000 km, and fly up to a maximum height of approximately 5 km.

It can perform missions for more than 20 hours and can transmit data over a line of sight (LOS) range of 200 km. As well, the Wing Loong has the ability to perform combat operations and can also be used for civil tasks such as disaster assessment, meteorological operations and environmental protection.