Spy Fish? China Tests Manta Ray Submersible Drone in South China Sea

Countries disputing China’s claims in the South China Sea, no doubt, will be watching closely the development of this sophisticated drone.
2021.09.27
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Spy Fish? China Tests Manta Ray Submersible Drone in South China Sea Chinese researchers from Northwestern Polytechnical University conducting a test swim of a manta ray-shaped robot in the waters off the Paracel Islands in South China Sea in early September 2021.
Xinhua News Agency

Chinese researchers from a military-linked university have completed the first open sea test in the Paracel Islands of a bionic robot that looks and swims like a manta ray, Chinese media reported.

Countries disputing China’s claims in the South China Sea, no doubt, will be watching closely the development of this sophisticated drone.

The state-run China Daily quoted developers from the Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU) in Xi’an as saying that this is the world's first bionic unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) to accomplish a more than 1,000-meter dive in the open sea, including gliding and flapping wing propulsion. They added that it would “play an important role in marine environmental protection.”

But such innovation would likely be utilized for military purposes, too.

“Most good robotics inventions (since the first robots) have ended up with military uses,” said Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics at University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom.

Professor Alexandre Vuving at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (APCSS), a U.S. Department of Defense institute based in Hawaii, agreed: “China will use these biomimetic robots for military purposes. This is consistent with their military-civil fusion strategy.”

Military-civil fusion is a national strategy aimed at developing the Chinese People’s Liberation Army through encouraging investment and technologies from the private sector and academic institutions.

The NWPU is listed by the U.S. Department of Justice as “a Chinese military university that is heavily involved in military research and works closely with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the advancement of its military capabilities.”

It is also among seven leading Chinese universities with deep roots in the military and defense industry that a 2019 report compiled by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute dubs the “Seven Sons of National Defense.” The report, based on a database funded by the U.S. State Department, catalogues the collaboration of educational institutes with the PLA and Chinese security agencies. Also among the seven is the Beijing Institute of Technology and Harbin Engineering University.

More than 40 percent of employed 2017 or 2018 NWPU graduates are working in the defense system, the report said. In the State Department-funded database, the NWPU is designated “very high risk” for its defense ties. It is also on a U.S. Commerce Department export blacklist.

The head of the manta ray robot project, Dr. Pan Guang, is the dean of the NWPU’s School of Marine Science and Technology and an author on torpedo mechanics.

A view of China's test swim of a manta ray-shaped robot in the waters off the Paracel Islands in South China Sea in early September 2021. Credit: Xinhua News Agency.
A view of China's test swim of a manta ray-shaped robot in the waters off the Paracel Islands in South China Sea in early September 2021. Credit: Xinhua News Agency.
‘No difference with the real manta ray’

A video clip published by Xinhua news agency in early September shows researchers releasing a large, bright yellow “manta ray” from a ship into the waters off the Paracel islands in the South China Sea.

Its shape is very life-like, with a flat body, two large wings and a wide head. Sharkey said he has not seen a drone like that before: “It looks quite amazing as a biomimetic robot with a ray propulsion system.”

Details remain sketchy but according to Xinhua, the new 470-kilogram (1,036-pound) bionic soft robot prototype with a three-meter wingspan can dive to a depth of up to 1,025 meters (yards).

Inspired by the manta ray, “one of nature’s most efficient swimmers,” the robot is described by the developers as having “high propulsion efficiency, high maneuverability, high stability, low environmental disturbance, low noise, large load capacity, and soft landing of the seafloor.”

The team from the NWPU has worked on the UUV project since 2016. After developing several prototypes, they claimed they’d already achieved “the flapping, gliding, emergency stop, turning, and other actions of this bionic manta ray; and there is almost no difference with the real manta ray.”

The robot allegedly can work continuously for weeks and is fitted with sensors for visual and sound detection.

A smaller black-and-white prototype launched in 2019 looked even more like the real ray. The ability to blend in with other fish in the ocean, thus becoming almost undetectable, makes it ideal for surveillance and spy works, experts say.

Russian defense analyst Vasily Kashin said the Chinese government has prioritized the development of UUVs for both civilian and military uses.

“They can be used both for observing the environment and hunting submarines,” he said.

Military uses

According to Sharkey from Sheffield University, the manta ray robot “could certainly be used to surveil what is happening in the sea around it and possibly above it and collect intelligence.”

“It would be useful to know if it operates quietly - that would make it extremely useful,” he told RFA.

Vuving from the APCSS elaborated: “Given the robot's capability, it can be used for intel gathering, and even sabotage purposes.”

Biomimetics, or applying learning about natural systems and robotics to design new vehicles, is a growing trend across the world. The manta ray, for its natural characteristics, has become the subject of imitation in a number of projects such as the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA’s) Manta Ray program, the British Royal Marines’ Raydrive and Singaporean scientists’ MantaDroid.

A DARPA’s spokesman when asked by RFA confirmed that the Manta Ray project was already launched but did not provide any further details.

The DARPA’s program costs $12.3 million while the Raydrive, the purposes of which are to spy on warships and submarines, is being developed with a budget of 100,000 pounds ($135,000), The Times of London reported in July.

It is unclear how much has been spent on the Chinese manta ray UUV but the project seems to have achieved a more advanced stage than its peers.

Xinhua reported the “manta ray” had already been used for observing the ocean environment in a major coral reef in the Paracels -- islands that China calls Xisha. The islands are under China’s control but also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

China claims historic rights to 90 percent of the South China Sea and has been developing military capabilities to assert its claims to disputed features despite protests from neighboring countries. Distant reefs have been transformed into artificial islands with runways that can accommodate jet fighters and large transport aircraft.

Stealthy underwater reconnaissance capability would be a major concern for Vietnam which has the largest submarine fleet in Southeast Asia. Hanoi has repeatedly denounced China’s activities in the area but has yet to respond to the new development.

“The Vietnamese are closely watching what China does in the South China Sea. But I am not sure about what collective conclusion Vietnam will draw from this,” said Vuving.

Another concern raised by AI and robotics experts is the arming of drones with autonomous weapons systems but according to Sharkey, the Chinese “manta ray” hasn’t yet reached that stage.

“I can’t imagine it being armed as it stands,” he said.

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