- China launched a crewless ship capable of carrying dozens of drones.
- The ship, named Zhu Hai Yun, uses an artificial intelligence system to navigate autonomously.
- Beijing has touted it as a maritime research tool, but experts suggest it has potential as a military vessel.
China has launched the world's first crewless drone carrier that uses artificial intelligence to navigate autonomously in open water.
Beijing has officially described it as a maritime research tool, but some experts have said the ship has the potential to be used as a military vessel.
The autonomous ship, the Zhu Hai Yun (pictured here) is around 290 feet long, 45 feet wide, and 20 feet deep and can carry dozens of air, sea, and submersible drones equipped with different observation instruments, according to the shipbuilder, CSSC Huangpu Wenchong Shipping Co.
It describes the vessel as "epoch making" and the "world's first intelligent unmanned system mother ship."
—Venkatesh Ragupathi (@venkatesh_Ragu) May 28, 2022
"The most immediate benefit to China is likely data collection," Matthew Funaiole, senior fellow of China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Insider.
"From a purely science standpoint, which is the angle China is promoting, we could see Chinese drones (both surface and subsurface, and launched from the Zhu Hai Yun) contributing to disaster mitigation, environmental monitoring, etc."
However, the drone mothership could also be used by China's military to gather intelligence in the contested South China Sea, which several countries have made competing territorial claims over.
In recent years, China has made increasingly assertive claims of sovereignty over the sea, and has been building up its military presence.
"When dealing with China, we rarely have perfect insight into their intentions, but as we have seen with its activities in the South China Sea, scientific ventures can be a precursor or otherwise support military objectives," Funaiole said.
"Technology, especially information collection systems, often have dual use applications. Data collected by China from autonomous systems could aid with surveillance, domain awareness, help PLA [People's Liberation Army] submarines navigate, enhance China's ASW [anti-submarine warfare] capabilities, etc."
The ship was first unveiled in May, but is expected to be delivered by the end of 2022 after completing sea trials, according to the South China Morning Post.
Unmanned platforms could be the "future of warfare"
The vessel uses the world's first AI system called Intelligent Mobile Ocean Stereo Observing System, developed by the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory, according to the South China Morning Post.
The ship will be controlled remotely, and can travel at a maximum speed of 18 knots, or around 20 miles per hour, according to the shipbuilder.
Chen Dake, the director of the laboratory, told the state-run Science and Technology Daily in 2021 that the ship is a new "marine species" that will revolutionize ocean observation.
China is already the world's biggest shipbuilder, and has ambitions to become a "maritime great power".
Although this vessel's capabilities and uses remain to be seen, militaries worldwide have increasingly been focusing on developing drones and unmanned vehicles.
Funaiole noted that China has invested considerable resources into various unmanned platforms, such as drones and autonomous vehicles, to strengthen the position of its navy.
"This will be part of the future of warfare," he said.