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China's New Underwater Drones

The Qianlong III looks like a supersized robotic clownfish. It's got sensors and propellers in its eyes, mouth, and tail. (source: www.news.cn)

The Qianlong III looks like a supersized robotic clownfish. It's got sensors and propellers in its eyes, mouth, and tail. (source: www.news.cn)

The Haiyan UUV is an underwater glider than can dive about 5,000 feet below the ocean surface for up to 30 days. These 154-pound drones (or future militarized versions) could be deployed against enemy submarines during war time. (source: China News)

The Haiyan UUV is an underwater glider than can dive about 5,000 feet below the ocean surface for up to 30 days. These 154-pound drones (or future militarized versions) could be deployed against enemy submarines during war time. (source: China News)

The Underwater Great Wall may be centered around stationary sensors on the ocean bed, but autonomous UUVs will be a critical enabler in tracking enemy submarines. (source: www.top81.cn)

The Underwater Great Wall may be centered around stationary sensors on the ocean bed, but autonomous UUVs will be a critical enabler in tracking enemy submarines. (source: www.top81.cn)

China Nuclear Group's floating nuclear reactor is intended to power both Chinese facilities on artificial islands, offshore rigs, and overseas humanitarian and infrastructure projects. (source: China Nuclear Group)

China Nuclear Group's floating nuclear reactor is intended to power both Chinese facilities on artificial islands, offshore rigs, and overseas humanitarian and infrastructure projects. (source: China Nuclear Group)

July 31, 2018 | Source: Popular Science, popsci.com, 22 June 2018, Jeffrey Lin and P.W. Singer

Qianlong III, a Chinese autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), has dived deep into the South China Sea, undertaking a nearly 100-mile, 42-hour voyage.  It looks like a clownfish from Finding Nemo, though the cute look belie serious capability. It has a forward propeller in the "eyes" and the "mouth" is a navigation sonar. Its vertical tail has a magenometer, which is useful for detecting metals like manganese nodes or foreign submarines. With a maximum operating depth of around 14,800 feet underwater, this 1.5-ton, 11-foot-long robot submarine will take the lead in China's underwater scientific ambitions.

China's Underwater Great Wall of networked seabed sensors and long endurance UUVs like the Qianlong III and the Haiyan glider are tasked with identifying enemy submarines, mines, and other UUVs. Considering longstanding Chinese deficiencies in anti-submarine warfare, deep-sea drones like the Qianlong III have applications beyond the economic sphere. They can also collect valuable data about enemy submarine acoustics and oceanographic conditions for improving stealth and anti-stealth measures.

Meanwhile, Chinese naval warfare has plans for swarms on the seas and in the air and, private Chinese firms are pitching multi-hulled robot warships and a 56-USV swarm for militarized purposes. As China pushes for the lead in other future naval technologies like floating nuclear power plants, underwater mining and robot freighters, it is clear that smart UUVs like the Qianlong III will find an ever-expanding set of missions.