China unveils new GPS-denied drone tech, but why?

Chinese researchers have developed a novel method to enable drones to function in areas where GPS signals are unavailable.
Christopher McFadden
The new technique could allow drones to operate even in GPS-denied environments.


Chinese researchers have developed a new method of enabling unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to maneuver, acquire, and potentially attack targets in global-positioning-system (GPS) "denied" environments. The technique, published in July's edition of Engineering, proposes using "image-based visual servoing" (IBVS) to "lock on" to hostile assets. This method could, the researchers propose, be used to acquire targets, even quickly moving ones.

GPS-free drone operation

While interesting, the principles behind the technique have been known since the 1980s. For example, as Defense One notes, robots have been using camera data to target objects for years. But, improvements in computer processing, algorithms, and camera sensors have reached a point where robots can effectively "see" and perform complex tasks like playing table tennis.

This new GPS-denied functionality will likely find a home in military drones, where electronic warfare is becoming commonplace. However, while acquiring and tracking targets in GPS-denied areas is handy, in most cases human operators are still required to give the "kill command."

Peter Singer, a technology and security expert at New America, says this might be about to change. He notes that the increased use of artificial intelligence (AI) and drone autonomy is fast becoming necessary as human-controlled drones become less effective due to sophisticated hacking and jamming techniques.

“The days of a human joysticking a drone from afar, using an unchallenged control signal and easy access to GPS or StarLink, are on their way out. It was easy to see this trend before Ukraine; what is happening there only reinforces it,” Singer explained to Defense One. He also questioned why such a seemingly "game-changing" technology like this would be allowed to be freely printed by the famously censorious Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Singer explained that the CCP's strict censors sometimes permit seemingly sensitive information to reach beyond top leadership in non-classified settings, including official party documents on tech policy and military journal articles on robot warfare doctrine. “Other messaging reveals information amidst the highlighting of new tech developments and publicizing defense capabilities, intended to create pride in their domestic audience or even to deter external foes," Singer explained.

Prestige and propaganda

Chinese scientists, obviously, also have professional reasons to ensure global awareness of their work. Additionally, Singer added that these publications can increase the value of Chinese weapons to potential third-party buyers.

“Then there is the indeliberate side. Our new digital world means orders of magnitude more information is being produced and shared than ever before in human history. And, as the character Mr. Universe said in the cult movie Serenity, even the most dedicated authoritarian regime, ‘Can't stop the signal...Everything goes somewhere.," explained Singer.

You can review the study for yourself in the journal Engineering.

Study abstract:

This study proposes an image-based visual servoing (IBVS) method based on a velocity observer for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for tracking a dynamic target in Global Positioning System (GPS)-denied environments. The proposed method derives the simplified and decoupled image dynamics of underactuated UAVs using a constructed virtual camera and then considers the uncertainties caused by the unpredictable rotations and velocities of the dynamic target. A novel image depth model that extends the IBVS method to track a rotating target with arbitrary orientations is proposed. The depth model ensures image feature accuracy and image trajectory smoothness in rotating target tracking. The relative velocities of the UAV and the dynamic target are estimated using the proposed velocity observer. Thanks to the velocity observer, translational velocity measurements are not required, and the control chatter caused by noise-containing measurements is mitigated. An integral-based filter is proposed to compensate for unpredictable environmental disturbances in order to improve the anti-disturbance ability. The stability of the velocity observer and IBVS controller is analyzed using the Lyapunov method. Comparative simulations and multistage experiments are conducted to illustrate the tracking stability, anti-disturbance ability, and tracking robustness of the proposed method with a dynamic rotating target.

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