China Launches Drone Ship That Acts As A Mothership For More Drones

China has launched a huge ‘drone ship,’ ostensibly designed for marine research purposes. The vessel, which is claimed to feature an advanced artificial intelligence operating system that allows for at least semi-autonomous operation, could also be employed in military contexts as a hub for various unmanned weapons and surveillance systems.

News of the launch, which took place on May 18, came via the South China Morning Post. The vessel, named Zhu Hai Yun, has been widely reported as the world’s first unmanned drone ship based on coverage by the South China Morning Post. Although other examples of unmanned surface vessels, or USVs, have become fairly common in recent years, Zhu Hai Yun is said to boast a custom artificial intelligence (AI) operations system to support its function as a mothership to various unmanned platforms, including aerial drones and submersibles. These combined capabilities will render it a powerful ocean research tool according to a report from Science and Technology Daily – the official journal of China’s Ministry of Science and Technology – accessed by the South China Morning Post. Clearly, there could be major military applications for it, as well.

The ship constitutes a new “marine species” according to Chen Dake, director of the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory (Zhuhai) of Sun Yat-sen University responsible for developing the ship’s AI system, branded the Intelligent Mobile Ocean Stereo Observing System (IMOSOS).

Quoted in Science and Technology Daily back in 2021, Chen stressed the revolutionary potential of the ship as the nerve center of an interconnected range of observational capabilities.

“The intelligent, unmanned ship…will bring revolutionary changes for ocean observation.”

Huangpu Wenchong Shipping Company, which built the ship, claims that when deployed, the vessel can undertake “three-dimensional dynamic observations” of specific target areas using unmanned aircraft, boats, and submersibles. Huangpu Wenchong is a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC,) the country’s largest ship manufacturer.

Construction of the Zhu Hai Yun began in July of 2021 in Guangzhou, northwest of Hong Kong. The ship measures 290 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep. It features a wide deck, aiding its ability to carry various platforms. The ship can sail at a top speed of 18 knots, with a designed displacement of 2,000 tons. 

It’s likely, as wider coverage on Zhu Hai Yun also indicates, that the ship may operate semi-autonomously. In order for it to navigate busy port areas, a crew would take control of the ship’s navigation system via remote control or by being physically present on board to at least monitor it during these complex navigational phases. In this sense, control of the vessel would be split between human operators and the autonomous AI system.

Following the completion of testing and sea trials, Zhu Hai Yun is expected to be delivered by the end of 2022.  

The combination of the ship’s new AI system, plus its ability to carry various unmanned capabilities, renders it an important tool for marine observation according to Science and Technology Daily, with important capabilities for China’s marine conservation and disaster prevention. Yet Zhu Hai Yun’s AI and drone-carrying capabilities have the potential to perform secondary military functions, particularly in terms of searching for targets of interest and coordinating persistent observation of those targets.   

Other Chinese firms have already begun developing unmanned surface vessels for security-specific missions. Yunzhou Tech, a leading developer of unmanned surface vehicles, revealed six high-speed unmanned vessels in late-2021, designed to “quickly intercept, besiege and expel” unspecified maritime intruders. Its “dynamic cooperative confrontation technology,” or “swarming” technology, allows drone ships to engage hostile targets in a coordinated manner without the need for manual control. Back in 2018, Yunzhou Tech undertook a collaborative demonstration of a huge 56-boat swarm of unmanned vessels for various conflict control and resolution tests. Zhu Hai Yun, or other vessels like it, could in theory coordinate these sorts of ship drone swarms.

Being able to gather “three-dimensional dynamic observations” would prove particularly significant for China’s Navy should it become involved in a conflict in the Pacific. As the report on the USS Connecticut accident underscores, highly accurate underwater navigation data is especially important for safe submarine operations under the waves. With accurate charts on the topography of the seabed readily available, thanks to a vessel such as Zhu Hai Yun, Chinese submarines would be able to improve mission planning and navigational flexibility.

In addition, the utility of a vessel such as Zhu Hai Yun would extend above the waves, too. Wide-area surveillance, with the possibility of geo-location sharing, would allow the Chinese Navy to seek out, as well as directly target, adversary vessels or other objects of interest within the vast expanse of the Pacific ocean via the employment of drones swarms or other weapons. These are capabilities that are likely to be critical in any future conflicts that China wages, including over the island of Taiwan. U.S. military wargaming around scenarios involving the defense of Taiwan in recent years has highlighted the immense value that drone swarms would offer the other side when used as distributed sensing networks, as you can read more about here.

The Chinese government has been investing significant resources into research and development of unmanned technology (to include swarming capabilities) and AI/machine learning, as of late. It has simultaneously worked on small drone swarming capabilities as well as platforms able to field aerial drones at sea. Just last year, it was revealed that China launched a catamaran mothership intended to field and recover fleets of small aerial drones, as well as issue electronic communication attacks on vessels for training and potential wartime use.

While the launch of Zhu Hai Yun has been reported as a triumph for Chinese marine research, particularly by state-run publications, this would not be the first time China has presented new maritime technology with secondary military functions as ‘ocean research.’ In 2017, for example, news emerged that Chinese plans to establish a network of underwater sensors, ostensibly for ‘environmental research,’ may have had anti-submarine warfare applications. Moreover, in 2020, The War Zone also reported that the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) use of ‘Sea Wing’ UUV may have been used for something more than environmental research.

At the same time, it is important to note that Zhu Hai Yun is only one ship. However, the experience gained in its development, construction, and eventual employment, regardless of how it is utilized, is all but certain to feed into other commercial and military work on unmanned surface vessels, autonomy, and other related technologies. This function as an experimental technology demonstrator, akin in some ways to the vessels tested as part of the U.S. military’s Ghost Fleet Overlord program, is likely to be just as important as whatever it might end up doing operationally.

Zhu Hai Yun clearly has huge potential for maritime defense – both in terms of fielding weapons, as well as obtaining critical surveillance. Whatever purpose the ship ends up serving in a military context, its launch underscores China’s recent efforts to dominate AI, particularly in terms of using it to address defense and national security concerns, as well as unmanned technologies.

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Oliver Parken Avatar

Oliver Parken

Associate Editor

Oli’s background is in the cultural and military history of twentieth-century Britain. Before joining The War Zone team in early in 2022, he was Assistant Lecturer at the University of Kent’s Center for the History of War, Media and Society in the U.K., where he completed his PhD in 2021. Alongside his contributions to The War Zone‘s military history catalog, he also covers contemporary topics and breaking news.