The Chinese army is converting its old Type 59 tanks into drones, hoping to inject a new lease of life into thousands of retired machines waiting to be scrapped.
The People's Liberation Army Ground Forces (PLAGF), as the Chinese army is known, has started field experiments on their newly converted tanks, according a Beijing state television outlet, reports Popular Mechanics (PM).
In a short video tweeted, an old tank can be seen in the field operated by a soldier seated in front of a simple looking system with video game styled steering and controls, outside in a test field. The operator of the drone has only two screens to look at and there are likely to be at least two cameras- one giving the operator a driver's point of view and one from the barrel, notes the report.
Modifications on the tank that are readily visible are two large antennas placed on the turret. There is also the possibility of a robotic system mounted inside the tank's manual control unit. One of the reasons why these old tanks are easy to convert into drones is because they are legacy systems with manual transmissions, with little to no electronics in any of its systems, notes the report.
Type 59 tanks are likely to be easier to drive remotely than a driver being actually present inside it, according to PM. The driver's work includes looking at a screen and use a digital steering wheel instead of the tank's T-steering bar.
Using the old tanks as a vessel to introduce a robot operator that can then be part of an artificial intelligence (AI) mainframe is the next logical step. "A large number of due-to-retire Type 59 tanks can be converted into unmanned vehicles if equipped with artificial intelligence," said Liu Qingshan, the chief editor of Tank and Armored Vehicle magazine, told China's Global Times newspaper.
This could be the first AI powered drone swarm from China that can be sent into battle that is just too dangerous for manned crews. Considering there are thousands of Type 59 tanks waiting in warehouses around China, and conversion to drone mode is not very expensive, this might happen sooner.