China Is Planning To Deploy A Fleet Of U.S. Manta Ray-like Undersea Spy Drones

According to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), China is developing larger models of its coral-monitoring submersibles for possible military reconnaissance, demonstrating its commitment to progressing underwater technology.

The Northwestern Polytechnical University research team, under the direction of Professor Cao Yong, created innovative submersibles that are meant to resemble the movements of manta rays. These soft-body submersibles were first developed in 2006. At first, they were made to look like cartoon characters, were lightweight, and were mainly used for coral reef monitoring.

“This year, we are preparing to carry out deep-sea applications of 800kg [1,765 pounds] class [submersibles],” Professor Cao Yong told state broadcaster CCTV. He added, “We will even develop a tonne-class prototype in the future, which can carry more powerful payloads and sail farther, including … future integrated reconnaissance and strike [roles].”

These older models have been effectively used in the South China Sea to track outbreaks of species like the crown-of-thorns starfish, which pose a threat to coral reefs, and to monitor marine biodiversity. Their design, which drew inspiration from the swimming patterns of marine life, has proven successful at navigating and gathering information in challenging underwater settings.

China’s goal in growing its submersible fleet is to improve its military and civilian capacities. Although the smaller submersibles are perfect for monitoring coral reefs and teaching about the ocean, larger models are being designed to dive longer and more deeply and gather more extensive data. The additional equipment these new submersibles carry will expand their operational range and functionality.

Northwestern Polytechnical University researcher Hao Yiwei said that to get the most out of these submersibles, the team intends to use them in groups next year. “The endurance, load capacity, and range of a single unit are minimal. If we form a cluster, we can travel longer distances,” Hao explained to CCTV.

China’s manta ray submersibles are equipped with advanced technology, including cameras, sonar, and the BeiDou navigation system, which enables real-time video and positioning information to be transmitted back to researchers. Last year, one of these submersibles reached a depth of 1,000 meters (3,280 feet), showcasing their impressive capabilities. However, challenges remain, such as microorganisms attaching to the submersibles’ surfaces, potentially hindering their navigation.

According to Cao, the team is developing a special gel to apply to the submersibles, aiming to “make these microorganisms mistakenly think that this is seawater.”

China is not the only nation exploring the potential of manta ray-like submersibles. Northrop Grumman developed a similar underwater drone in the United States that passed in-water tests earlier this year. Designed for “long-duration, long-range missions in ocean environments where humans can’t go,” this drone can anchor to the sea floor to hibernate in a low-power mode and carry payloads for various missions. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has commissioned this drone to “provide groundbreaking technology to create strategic surprise.”

In related developments, China showcased another advanced underwater drone, the UUV300CB, at the Defence Services Asia exhibition in Malaysia earlier this year. This extra-large uncrewed underwater vehicle (XLUUV) shows China’s push to develop autonomous underwater weapons. The UUV300CB measures 11.5 meters in length, weighs 50 tonnes, and boasts a range of 450 nautical miles (834 kilometers). It is designed to carry sea mines, smaller UUVs, and lightweight torpedoes, with potential for missile launch capabilities.

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