Creation of the world’s biggest test site for unmanned drone ships is underway in the waters around Zhuhai, in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. The Wanshan Marine Test Field facility is currently under construction and when completed will cover 771.6 sq km. Unmanned naval vessels can generally be used for surveillance, maritime law enforcement, and in other situations where personnel might otherwise be put at risk. Their applications are both military and commercial in nature.
The announcement comes a few days after the Chinese military media outlet, PLA Daily, confirmed the PRC sent an unmanned surface vehicle (USV), on its first outing in January. In December of 2017 they also unveiled the Tianxing-1 USV at the fifth China Marine Economy Expo in Zhanjiang and at the All China Maritime Conference and Exhibition (Marintec China) in Shanghai.
According to Jane’s the Tianxing-1 has a purported top speed of more than 50 knots (92.6 kilometers per hour), a length of 12.2 meters and a 7.5 ton displacement. It is propelled by a hybrid electric-gasoline engine. Its weapons options have not been publicized, but in released images, the demonstration unit appears to have a range of swiveling sensors and may potentially be able to carry small weapons.
Previously the speed record for an USV was held by the British Royal Navy‘s Autonomous Surface Testbed Vehicle (MAST). The MAST is equipped with radar, electro-optical, infrared, and digital sensors for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance applications. They may eventually also have an anti-submarine warfare role, but that remains in the development stage for now.
Another project from the Royal Navy, the Sensor Hosting Autonomous Remote Craft (SHARC), has shown ability to detect and track manned and unmanned submarines. Anti-submarine warfare continues to be an active area of research and development for the Chinese Navy as regional naval forces continue to add subs to their maritime arsenals in Southeast Asia. USVs could yet provide a promising platform for undersea surveillance.
Have no fear, the US Navy is in the game as well. In fact they are winning on this front–taking delivery recently of the largest crew-less surface ship in the world. The Sea Hunter Anti-Submarine Warfare Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel, or ACTUV, is a 132 foot long, 140 ton drone warship perfectly suited for hunting down enemy submarines.
Early reports from Dayoo.com, a Guangzhou Daily news site did not say when the Wangshan Test Field would be fully functional but said it would eventually comprise a telecommunications network, navigation radars and automatic mooring systems on islands in the Pearl River Delta. China has used some of the world’s biggest and most advanced dredging vessels to create and expand artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The location for the test site is contentious in nature since Zhuhai itself faces the South China Sea–China claims over 90 per cent as their own sovereign waters but face overlapping clams with Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
This test site for unmanned vessels is part of China’s overall plans to continue development of autonomous systems for both civilian and military applications–researching various unmanned technologies, including aircraft and underwater drones.
**Featured Image courtesy of USN on FLICKR.com