Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) technologies are changing rapidly. As more high-end military drones boast higher altitudes and endurance, “stealth mode” and high-speed capabilities, the reconnaissance and combat drones still using piston engines and propellers seem to be outdated. But the designers of Caihong-4 (CH-4), or Rainbow-4 believe UAVs are developing into niche markets, and the so-called high-end drones will not pose a threat to medium and low-end markets, where adaptability, reliability and low cost are important features. The design philosophy of the CH series drones is similar to that behind the famous AK-47 assault rifle, which survived the emergence of advanced weapons, satellites, missiles and stealth fighter jets.
Since aircraft first became weapons, they have had to overcome the dangers of combat. They have been designed and built to go higher and faster, to fly at super-low altitude, and been equipped with electronic jamming, stealth capabilities and more. The result is that aircraft are becoming evermore sophisticated and expensive. But if a UAV is crashed or damaged, it won’t necessarily lead to casualties, and its relative low cost makes losses more sustainable. So good UAVs must be affordable, and cheap to run and replace.
A whole CH-4 unmanned aircraft system (UAS) comprises a ground control station, three or four unmanned aircraft, and reconnaissance and combat suites. The price tag varies according to its configuration, but the CH-4 is very competitively priced. The cost of a CH-4 is only 20 percent of that of a third-generation fighter jet, and is much cheaper than an advanced trainer aircraft. So, even for small and medium-sized countries with small military budgets, it is affordable.
The CH-4 has a control radius of 250 kilometers via an anti-jamming data link system. If equipped with satellite data links, the scope can extend to some 2,000 kilometers, putting the control station far from the battlefield. The CH-4 is even cheaper than a main battle tank, so users can sustain losses. For countries with bigger military budgets, the CH-4 is a consumer appliance.
The CH-4 uses a mouse control. “The control interface is very clean, unlike those using joysticks, which have shaky coordinates systems. Pilots also don’t need rigorous flight training,” says chief designer Shi Wen. “The whole process from take-off to cruise mode is preset. When a target is sighted, then clicked on, there is another preset sequence for the UAS to follow: catch or hit. Once the UAS is ordered to fly back, it will automatically fly back with a high degree of automation. One month of training is enough to fly a CH-4. They can be combat ready in three months. Skilled pilots can even operate several UAVs on multi-target missions.”
Unlike normal aircraft, which need several hours of maintenance after operations, the CH-4 needs half an hour to refuel and check before it’s ready for another mission because it has full electronic and highly reliable technologies. It can be used for thousands of flying hours. The designers are currently trying to make it as economical as civil aviation aircraft.