Chinese researchers turn to artificial intelligence to build futuristic weapons

Artificial intelligence can outperform humans in designing futuristic weapons, according to a team of Chinese naval researchers who say they have developed the world’s smallest yet most powerful coilgun.

The prototype weapon developed by professor Zhang Xiao and her team at the Naval University of Engineering in Wuhan has a 12cm (4.5-inch) barrel, about the size of a pistol, which contains three battery-powered coils that generate an electromagnetic field.

This electromagnetic field means that, unlike a conventional gun, the bullet does not touch the sides as it passes through the barrel.

Researchers found the bullet’s kinetic energy as it was could reach almost 150 joules, more than twice the energy needed to fire a fatal shot.

The bullet speed can vary depending on factors such as size and weight, and the scientists said one of the major advantages of using a coil gun was that, unlike a conventional gun, it could be adjusted to fire deadly shots or non-lethal ones.

In a paper published in the Transactions of the China Electrotechnical Society last month, Zhang said the gun had the advantage of “adjustable speed and a very short response time”, adding that it had great potential to be used for counterterrorism and maintaining stability.

The researchers say it would have been impossible to achieve this level of performance without using AI in the design process.

The most powerful portable coilgun at present is the GR-1 “Anvil”, a US$3,750 rifle released by Los Angeles-based company Arcflash Labs earlier this year which is available for pre-order on the commercial market.

The company says on its website that it can generate muzzle energy of 85 joules, comparable to a large airgun.

The earliest model developed by Zhang’s team was similar to the American product, according to the study. But after introducing AI into the design, the weapon’s performance increased significantly.

An electromagnetic weapon was difficult to design because it was more sophisticated than a typical firearm, the researchers said.

For example, tiny differences in the size and shape of the coils can make a dramatic difference to performance, and the battery used in the gun is a complex device with many settings that can also have a significant impact on the weapon’s effectiveness.

This, coupled with other elements such as the design of the bullet and barrel, made the coilgun too complex for traditional weapons software to handle.

But AI can start with an imperfect design and make continuous improvements by learning from previous mistakes, according to Zhang.

The AI gave the human designers a huge set of optimised data points that nearly doubled the weapon’s efficiency compared with the US rifle by maximising the joint performance of many different components, she said. This resulted in a massive reduction in the weapon’s size and increased its output energy.

Chinese military researchers already uses AI to develop large-scale electromagnetic weapons such as railguns that can fire projectiles over hundreds of kilometres or into orbit.

The navy recently built a test facility to use AI to develop smart railgun munitions that can endure extremely high pressure and intense magnetic fields making them more effective in a range of operations, according to a recent study.

In July the United States Navy suspended a railgun programme that had been dogged by technical difficulties and had made slow progress over the past 15 years. It said it would instead concentrate its resources on developing hypersonic weapons.

China has already conducted numerous sea tests for its railguns. The Naval Armament Department Ordnance Equipment Bureau in Beijing said recently that China would stick to its railgun programme.

“The range of shipborne electromagnetic railguns can reach 200km [120 miles]. In other words, without the need for carrier-based aircraft to take off, continuous fire support and on-call strikes within 200km of the shore can be achieved,” said a study published in the Journal of Gun Launch and Control last week.

“Currently, 80 per cent of the world’s population lives within 200km of the coast. Therefore, the application of electromagnetic railguns can ensure the safety of the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ strategic channel along the belt and road, and protect the development interests of our country,” the naval researchers said.

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