Chinese academics have christened an ocean research vessel that has a twist: it will sail the seas with a complement of aerial and ocean-going drones and no human crew.
The Zhu Hai Yun, or Zhuhai Cloud, launched in Guangzhou after a year of construction. The 290-foot-long mothership can hit a top speed of 18 knots (about 20 miles per hour) and will carry 50 flying, surface, and submersible drones that launch and self-recover autonomously.
According to this blurb from the shipbuilder behind its construction, the Cloud will also be equipped with a variety of additional observational instruments “which can be deployed in batches in the target sea area, and carry out task-oriented adaptive networking to achieve three-dimensional view of specific targets.” Most of the ship is an open deck where flying drones can land and be stored. The ship is also equipped with launch and recovery equipment for its aquatic craft.
Dake Chen, director of the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory that owns the Zhuhai Cloud, told state-owned China Daily the ship will be capable of more than just research.
“The vessel is not only an unprecedented precision tool at the frontier of marine science, but also a platform for marine disaster prevention and mitigation, seabed precision mapping, marine environment monitoring, and maritime search and rescue,” Chen explained.
The South China Morning Post wrote this month the ship will also have military applications, with the ability to “intercept and expel invasive targets,” though the reality of that situation is a bit more complicated.
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That China has unmanned military ships is no secret. For instance, the Global Times reported last year on the efforts of Yunzhou Tech to develop vessels able to intercept and expel targets. Yunzhou Tech was founded in part by Zhang Yunfei, who is reportedly also a key developer of the Intelligent Fast Mobile Ocean Stereo Observation System (IMOSOS), of which Zhuhai Cloud serves as the core.
Yunzhou Tech offers a range of autonomous boats, some of which are specifically designed for law enforcement. Its founder’s work with IMOSOS doesn’t mean Zhuhai Cloud will be anything more than a research vessel, though it does indicate similar technology is being used in both the military and civilian sectors in China.
Yunzhou’s intercept-and-expel ships aren’t the only use of unmanned vessels that China has been developing, either. The country has allegedly been developing a near identical copy of the Sea Hunter, the US Navy’s unmanned drone submarine hunter that launched in 2016. ®