While the Qianlong III looks like a supersized robotic clownfish, it has sensors and propellers in its eyes, mouth and tail.
Qianlong III, a Chinese autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), has dived deep into the South China Sea, undertaking a nearly one hundred mile, 42 hour voyage in late April 2018.
The Qianlong took pictures of deep sea marine life, at depths of thousands of meters, on its inaugural voyage in the South China Sea, in addition to searching for seafloor mineral and energy resources.
Xinhua News Agency
Built by the Shenyang Institute of Automation, the colorful Qianlong III looks like the titular clownfish from the Pixar animated movie Finding Nemo, with its orange and white paint scheme. But the cute looks belie serious capability. It has a forward propeller in the 'eyes', while the 'mouth' is a navigation sonar. Its vertical tail has a magenometer, useful for detecting metals, like say manganese nodes, or foreign submarines. Cai Wei, the chief scientist of the mothership Dayang Yihao, noted that in two follow up trips, the Qianlong III collected reams of data on natural gas hydrate and metallic nodules, in support of Chinese interests in natural resources on the South China seabed.
Deep Sea, Long Endurance
The Qianlong III can stay underwater for multiple days at depths of 4,500 meter, beating out its Qianlong II predecessor.
Xinhua News Agency
Compared to its visually similar, older brother Qianlong II, the Qianlong III has longer endurance, and a higher percentage of domestic content. With a maximum operating depth of 4,500 meters underwater, this 1.5 ton, 3.5 meter long robot submarine will take the lead in China's underwater scientific ambitions.
The Haiyan UUV is an underwater glider, which can dive under 1,500m below the ocean surface, for up to 30 days. These 70kg drones (or future militarized versions) could be deployed enmass by Y-8Qs to provide a quick but long-term sensor solution, in areas like the Taiwan Straits, against enemy submarines during war time.
Added on to the wider range of Chinese interests in underwater mining, deep sea energy and robot ships for civilian freight and military swarms, the Qianlong III points to a growing Chinese capability of underwater and surface unmanned vehicles.
Underwater Great Wall of China
The Underwater Great Wall may be centered around stationary sensors on the ocean bed, but autonomous UUVs will be a critical enabler in not just tracking enemy submarines, but finding them.
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. For more peaceful uses, the Underwater Great Wall's collection of underwater and seabed data could facilitate search and rescue, earthquake and tsunami warning, scientific research, and underwater resource collection.
Chinese naval warfare has plans for swarms on the seas and in the air. Meanwhile private Chinese firms are pitching multi-hulled robot warships like the Yunzhou Tech M80A trimaran and Oceanalpha debutted in May 2018 a 56 USV swarm for militarized purposes.
Atoms on the Sea
China Nuclear Group's floating nuclear reactor is intended to power both Chinese facilities on artificial islands, offshore rigs, and overseas humanitarian and infrastructure projects.
China Nuclear Group
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 Nemo-like Qianlong III will find an ever expanding set of missions.