China is developing large, smart and relatively low-cost unmanned submarines that can roam the world’s oceans to perform a wide range of missions, from reconnaissance to mine placement to even suicide attacks against enemy vessels, according to scientists involved in these artificial intelligence (AI) projects.
The autonomous robotic submarines are expected to be deployed in the early 2020s. While not intended to entirely replace human-operated submarines, they will challenge the advantageous position established by Western naval powers after the second world war. The robotic subs are aimed particularly at the United States forces in strategic waters like the South China Sea and western Pacific Ocean, the researchers said.
The project is part of the government's ambitious plan to boost the country's naval power with AI technology. China has built the world's largest testing facility for surface drone boats in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. Military researchers are also developing an AI-assisted support system for submarine commanders. As the South China Morning Post reported earlier this year, that system will help captains make faster, more accurate judgments in the heat of combat situations.
The new class of unmanned submarines will join the other autonomous or manned military systems on water, land and orbit to carry out missions in coordinated efforts, according to the researchers.
The submarines will have no human operators on board. They will go out, handle their assignments and return to base on their own. They may establish contact with the ground command periodically for updates, but are by design capable of completing missions without human intervention.
Type 039A diesel electric submarine (pictured). Photo: Handout
But the researchers also noted that AI subs had limits, especially at the early stages of deployment. They will start with relatively simple tasks. The purpose of these projects is not to replace human crews entirely. To attack or not to attack, the final decision will still be in the hands of commanders, the researchers said.
Current models of unmanned underwater vehicles, or UUVs, are mostly small. Their deployment and recovery require another ship or submarine. They are limited in operational range and payload capacity.
Now under development, the AI-powered subs are “giants” compared to the normal UUVs, according to the researchers. They station in dock as conventional submarines. Their cargo bay is reconfigurable and large enough to accommodate a wide range of freight, from powerful surveillance equipment to missiles or torpedoes. Their energy supply comes from diesel-electric engines or other power sources that ensure continuous operation for months.
The robotic submarines rely heavily on artificial intelligence to deal with the sea’s complex environment. They must make decisions constantly on their own: changing course and depth to avoid detection; distinguishing civilian from military vessels; choosing the best approach to reach a designated position.
They can gather intelligence, deploy mines or station themselves at geographical “chockpoints” where armed forces are bound to pass to ambush enemy targets. They can work with manned submarines as a scout or decoy to draw fire and expose the position of the adversary. If necessary, they can ram into a high-value target.
Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed to the South China Morning Post this month that China is developing a series of extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUVs.
“Yes, we are doing it,” he said.
The institute, in China’s northeast Liaoning province, is a major producer of underwater robots to the Chinese military. Lin developed China’s first autonomous underwater vehicle with operational depth beyond 6km. He is now chief scientist of the 912 Project, a classified programme to develop new-generation military underwater robots in time for the 100-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021.
Lin called China’s unmanned submarine programme a countermeasure against similar weapons now under intensive development in the United States. He declined to elaborate on technical specifications because the information was “sensitive”.
“It will be announced sooner or later, but not now,” he added.
The US military last year made a deal with major defence contractors for two prototype XLUUVs by 2020. The US Navy would choose one prototype for the production of nine vehicles.
Lockheed Martin’s Orca system would station in an area of operation with the ability to establish communication to base from time to time. It would return home after deploying payloads, according to the company’s website.
“A critical benefit of Orca is that Navy personnel launch, recover, operate, and communicate with the vehicle from a home base and are never placed in harm’s way,” the company said in a statement announcing the system.
Technical details on Orca, like its size or operational endurance, are not available. The company did not respond to the Post’s queries.
Boeing is developing the other prototype, basing it on its Echo Voyager, a 50-ton autonomous submarine first developed for commercial uses like the mapping of the sea floor.
The Echo Voyager is more than 15 metres long and 2.6 metres in diameter, according to Boeing. It can operate for months over a range of 12,000km, more than enough to sail from San Francisco to Shanghai. Its maximum speed reaches 15km an hour.
The vessel needs to surface periodically as its batteries need to be recharged by air-breathing diesel engines. It can dive to 3km while carrying up to eight tons of cargo, Boeing said.
Russia has reportedly built a large underwater drone capable to carry a nuclear weapon. The Status-6 autonomous torpedo could cruise across large distances between continents at high speed and deliver a 100-megaton warhead, according to news accounts.
The Chinese unmanned submarine would not be nuclear-armed, according to a researcher involved in a separate programme in China.
The main advantage of the AI subs is that they can be produced and operated on a large scale at a relatively low cost, said the researcher, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Traditional submarines must attain a high level of stealth to increase the chance of survival. The design has to consider other things including safety, comfort and the mental health of the crew to ensure human safety. All these elements add costs.
In the 1990s, an Ohio-class submarine for the US Navy cost US$2 billion. The research, development and purchase of the first 12 of its new Columbia-class submarines, scheduled for delivery in the early 2020s, is more than US$120 billion.
In contrast, the budget of the entire Orca programme is about US$40 million, according to Lockheed Martin.
An AI sub “can be instructed to take down a nuclear-powered submarine or other high-value targets. It can even perform a kamikaze strike,” said the researcher, referring to the suicide attacks some Japanese fighter pilots made in the second world war.
“The AI has no soul. It is perfect for this kind of job,” the researcher added.
Luo Yuesheng, professor at the College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University, a major development centre for China’s new submarines, contended that AI subs would put the human captains of other vessels under enormous pressure in battle.
It is not just that the AI subs are fearless, Luo said, but that they could learn from the sinking of other AI vessels and adjust their strategy continuously. An unmanned submarine trained to be familiar to a specific water “will be a formidable opponent”, he said.
AI submarines are still at an early stage, Luo noted, and many technical and engineering hurdles remain before they can be deployed in open water.
Hardware on board, for instance, must meet high standards of quality and reliability, since no mechanics will be on board to fix a broken engine, repair leaking pipes or tighten a screw, he said.
The missions of unmanned submarines will also likely be limited to specific, relatively simple tasks, Luo said.
“AI will not replace humans. The situation under water can get quite sophisticated. I don’t think a robot can understand or handle all the challenges,” he added.
China is hoping huge, new, smart unmanned submarines will help give its naval fleet an edge in crucial waterways like the South China Sea and the western Pacific.
The South China Post reported Sunday that Beijing expects to deploy artificially intelligent unmanned submarines in the early 2020s. The seacraft could be used to survey waters, place munitions or even be used in suicide attacks against enemies, scientists involved in the program told the outlet. Lin Yang, marine technology equipment director at the Shenyang Institute of Automation, Chinese Academy of Sciences, confirmed the program, and said it was a response to work in the US to develop similar watercraft.
These subs, dubbed extra-large unmanned underwater vehicles, or XLUUVs, are much bigger than the current crop of underwater vehicles — large enough to dock as conventional submarines and to carry significant weaponry and other equipment. Their artificial intelligence will help them operate undersea, not only to avoid natural phenomena, but to detect and identify friendly or hostile ships and make navigational decisions to avoid them. The XLUUVs are also designed to complete tasks without needing to seek input during the course of a mission, the SCMP reports. The intention is for the subs to depart, complete their missions and return without needing guidance.
One of the main advantages of the AI subs, however, is their relatively low cost, as all of the investment that goes into making the vehicles survivable environments for humans can be stripped away. Without those frills, the ships can operate fearlessly, using artificial intelligence systems to learn from what is happening around them without having to be concerned with protecting human cargo. They could be a major issue for enemy commanders to deal with, Luo Yuesheng, professor at the College of Automation in Harbin Engineering University, where Chinese subs are developed, told SCMP.
Of course, without humans on board, the unmanned subs will have to be especially resilient, as human diagnostics and repairs while at sea won't be possible.
China has been increasingly investing in its navy, opening its
that scouts for deep-sea fossil fuel deposits as well as potential foreign ships, and other autonomous systems on land and in the air to act in concert with People's Liberation Army-Navy personnel. They are not intended to replace manned underwater vehicles, but to provide more options for human commanders, researchers on the program told the outlet.
Xu Guangyu, a retired general and senior consultant with the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association in Beijing,
that while China intends to keep up with the US in terms of expertise and technology, that doesn't mean China is looking to achieve parity with the US' massive war machine.
"China would focus on competing against the United States on quality. We cannot fall behind in terms of technology. But in terms of the size or numbers service members of the military, we would not try to ‘strike a balance' with them. For example, they [the United States] have thousands of nuclear warheads. We would not be so foolish as to spend a lot of money on such weapons that lie dormant in storage facilities. If the accuracy and power of our missiles are strong, it's enough for us, because one of our missiles would equal 10 missiles from the United States," Xu said.
Tensions between the US and China are already high when it comes to the world's oceans. The US objects to China's
has announced that its unmanned surface vessels (USVs) have been sent to Antarctica in order to perform an underwater topographic survey. The survey was performed to aid the “Snow Dragon”, a research vessel sent to perform China’s 34th Antarctic scientific expedition mission and to aid the establishment of China’s fifth Antarctic research station.
Because that particular area of the sea had never been explored before, and existing geographical data was sparse, the challenge of finding the right anchorage for the “Snow Dragon” needed to be solved.
The research team turned to state-of-the-art unmanned vessel technology for a possible solution. After a series of upgrades and rigorous tests, Oceanalpha provided a solution comprised of 4 unmanned boats – one large-size M80 boat and three smaller ME40 vessels.
As planned, the “Snow Dragon” and Oceanalpha’s unmanned boats arrived in Rosesea. The unmanned vessels had a limited time to complete their tasks so as to provide “Snow Dragon” with up-to-date data in real time.
The meteorological conditions in the region are highly complex. The instant wind speed can be as high as 40m/s, and the temperature is 10 degrees below zero. The structural strength of the boat hulls was greatly challenged when operating at such low temperatures for a long period of time. To ensure stable performance, Oceanalpha engineers performed in-depth research into hull structural strength and performance of power systems and electronic components in order to achieve a working design.
In approximately 20 hours, the four unmanned boats completed the topography survey with a multi-beam coverage of 5 square kilometers. The M80 was responsible for scanning the deep-water area, while the smaller boats surveyed the shallower area near the shore. The unmanned boats filled the data gap in the region, providing spatial geographic information and data support for the construction of the Antarctic expedition station.
Chinese underwater drone maker’s plan to rule the waves could be scuppered by US trade war
Robotics is a key industry in the ‘Made in China 2025’ strategy, but so far Sublue’s underwater drones have not been targeted by tariffs
A former Chinese military officer who set up an underwater drone start-up in Tianjin believes that in the next few years his company can dominate the oceans like Da Jiang Innovation rules the sky, despite the escalating trade war between China and the US.
Tianjin Sublue Ocean Science and Technology, founded by decommissioned officer Wei Jiancang in 2013, forecast the company’s revenue would rise tenfold this year and is expanding production to meet growing demands.
The company produces the underwater robots for the military but has expanded into the civilian market for industrial and commercial uses. Its clients include recreational consumers as well as government agents like the customs agency in Macau.
Wei graduated from the National University of Defence Technology with a major in inertial navigation system research. After retiring from the military, he set up Sublue in 2013 in Tianjin’s Binhai district.
He said he was confident his company’s sales revenue could hit 1 billion yuan (US$146 million) by 2020 and grow exponentially to 10 billion yuan by 2022.
“The market potential is so great that we cannot see the ceiling,” he said. “The market scale could reach hundreds of billion dollars in coming years.”
Robotics is one of the strategic industries in Beijing’s hi-tech catch-up plan “Made in China 2025”. The strategy, aimed at cultivating home-grown champions in sensitive sectors, has raised alarm among foreign companies concerned about limited chances for participation and unhappy about state support for their Chinese rivals.
In addition, the wider dual-use technologies such as artificial intelligence have raised alarm in the US. It has billed China as a strategic competitor and increasingly considers military and geopolitical factors when devising trade policy, according to observers.
China’s government has encouraged private firms to produce technological innovations that could help the armed forces modernise under a “military-civil fusion” initiative.
JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce giant, and SF Express, a leading delivery company, have declared support for a military-civil fusion programme, but analysts have warned that companies with ties to the military would have a higher risk of investment restrictions overseas, especially amid rising concerns in the US.
Washington and Beijing have imposed 25 per cent tariffs on US$34 billion of each other’s goods. Another US$16 billion will be subject to duties starting on Thursday, and the US is working on a list for an additional US$200 billion of Chinese imports.
China’s drones have yet to be placed on the US tariff list. But US President Donald Trump has threatened to levy punitive duties on everything China exports.
“So far we are safe, but if Trump goes further to levy tariffs on other products, Chinese drones, no matter whether they are in the air or underwater, will be hit. Nowhere to escape,” an industrial insider said.
“We would be unable to avoid getting hurt as we are very dependent on external demand.”
Underwater robots, first designed for military use, have been widely applied to civilian sectors, which have huge potential for various uses.
Sublue makes autonomous underwater vehicles and gliders that are used for aquaculture, filming and archaeology, salvage and security surveillance, as well as for recreation, according to the company’s website.
Wei said Macau Customs Service, which bought one robot last year and has placed another order, used the technology for surveillance in fighting underwater smuggling.
He said the company had developed its own technologies covering navigation, communications, power supply and air-proof features. “We have no competitors now,” he said.
Sublue has raised nearly 400 million yuan (US$58.4 million) from domestic investors, but its military applications prevent it from raising from overseas capital because of national security concerns.
Wei plans to spin off the company’s consumer product operation, which could open it to foreign capital in the future.
He is proud of his series of small automated propellers, which last year won awards for design and function. Sublue launched a miniature consumer version this year and started to receive orders in April. The buyers were mainly from Europe, the US, Australia and Japan, including hotels that would rent the propellers to clients for diving, he said. It has a sales team in Los Angeles and is setting up another in Sydney.
The orders have reached 140,000 but Sublue has delivered 12,000 units so far. To meet rising demand, Wei will install new production lines next month to expand the capacity to 300,000 units by the end of the year.
Despite rising hopes that US and Chinese leaders may agree to suspend tariffs in November, when Trump and President Xi Jinping are likely to meet at the Apec and Group of 20 summits, the US is wary of China’s growing technological efforts.
“Even if tariffs are put on hold, the US will keep trying to constrain China’s technological development by tighter investment restrictions and export controls,” Arthur Kroeber of Gavekal Dragonomics said in a research report.
The drama of American suspension of chip supplies to Chinese telecom giant ZTE, since lifted, was considered a wake-up call for China to push ahead in developing its own technology.
Zhang Yuzhuo, the Communist Party secretary of Binhai district, said the trade war was “both a challenge and an opportunity” for China.
Zhang, who has visited Sublue’s facilities multiple times, said Binhai was focused on supporting hi-tech start-ups, which accounted for nearly 30 per cent of the companies in the district.
AAD 2018: China's CSOC Unveils 'JARI' Unmanned Surface Combatant - USV
POSTED ON SUNDAY, 23 SEPTEMBER 2018 10:13
During AAD 2018, the Africa Aerospace and Defence exhibition held this week in South Africa, Chinese company China Shipbuilding and Offshore International Company (CSOC) unveiled a new medium-size unmanned surface vessel called 'JARI'. CSOC is the export arm of Chinese shipbuilding group China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC).
The new unmanned surface combat unveiled by CSOC during AAD 2018. It is official name and designation is: "JARI-USV MULTIPURPOSE UNMANNED COMBAT BOAT (COMBAT TYPE)".
Talking to Navy Recognition at the show, a CSOC representative explained that JARI is multipurpose USV for combat designed for both the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN or Chinese Navy) and export customers. An order has yet to be placed however. CSIC has already produced a prototype which has started sea trials earlier this year.
The main characteristics of the JARI USV (as provided by CSOC) are a length of 15 meters, a breadth of 4.80 meters and a depth of 1.80 meters for a displacement of about 20 tons. The USV maximum speed is 42 knots and its range is 500 nautical miles. In comparison, DARPA's Sea Hunter (a tirmaran USV for ASW) has a length of 40 meters and displacement of about 140 tons.
The new unmanned surface combat unveiled by CSOC during AAD 2018. It is official name and designation is: "JARI-USV MULTIPURPOSE UNMANNED COMBAT BOAT (COMBAT TYPE)".
Based on the scale model on display at the show, JARI sensor suite includes an Active Phased Array Radar (APAR) with four fixed pannels, an electro-optic system, navigation radar and satellite link antenna. We were told that JARI can be control from land or at sea from a "mother ship".
The weapons suite includes a 30mm remote weapon station (as main gun) fitted with an optional pod for "guided and unguided rockets" (according to CSOC). 2x4 vertical launch systems (placed behind the main gun) can deploy surface to air missiles. Final two optional single torpedo launchers (for lightweight torpedoes such as the ET52C) are placed on each side of the superstructure. For anti-submarine warfare (ASW) mission, the JARI can be fitted with a sonar.