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.