KEY POINTS

  • Its wide deck can carry dozens of unmanned vehicles, including drones
  • Beijing claims the vehicle is designed for marine research purposes 
  • An analyst said it faces the risk of electronic jamming like other UAVs

China has launched the world's first drone carrier, a vessel that will likely be used for military purposes. The ship, Zhu Hai Yun, can be controlled remotely to navigate autonomously in open water.

Zhu Hai Yun, launched last week, has a wide deck equipped to carry dozens of unmanned vehicles including drones, unmanned ships and submersibles, reported the South China Morning Post. This also makes it a powerful platform to launch UAVs for military purposes, though Beijing claims the vehicle has been designed for marine research purposes. 

The drone mothership is expected to be commissioned by the end of the year after sea trials. 

According to the Chinese state-run Science and Technology Daily the ship could be an "efficient tool in marine disaster prevention and mitigation, environmental monitoring and offshore wind farm maintenance besides delivering accurate marine information."

But, analysts think its task is not just limited to marine research.  Timothy Heath, a senior security analyst from the U.S. think tank Rand told the South China Morning Post that the vessel could definitely be used for military applications. "The drone carrier might deploy to remote locations to deploy smart mines, for example," he said. 

"The most immediate benefit to the PLA is the increase in knowledge about relevant waters through the collection of data by the UUVs [unmanned underwater vehicles]. This can help PLA Navy submarines operate with greater confidence and effectiveness in those areas," Heath added.

A report by The Drive too added that Zhu Hai Yun’s "AI and drone-carrying capabilities" enable it to carry out military functions, including searching for targets.

Zhu Hai Yun's ability to conduct wide-area surveillance, with the possibility of geo-location sharing, would allow the Chinese Navy to target enemy vessels or other objects of interest in the Pacific and the South China Sea. This will be critical in future conflicts, including during a potential Taiwan invasion.

But not without risks. According to Heath, Zhu Hai Yun faces the same risk of electronic jamming as all other unmanned vessels.

"With no human on board, the vessel in autonomous mode could make bad decisions in the face of unexpected circumstances, resulting in mission failure," he said. Heath added that besides jamming, drones could be spoofed.

However, Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, isn't sure about its use in the military. "This ship can at most be deployed to relatively stable waters near the shore, where most of the warfare or conflict won’t occur," Zhou told the South China Morning Post.

That said, the launch of the ship reflects China's huge investment and interest in unmanned technology and AI machine learning.

Beijing recently announced it was working on small drone swarming capabilities and platforms able to field aerial drones at sea. China launched a catamaran mothership last year to the field and recover fleets of small aerial drones and launch electronic communication attacks on vessels during wartime. 

China showcased its new air power at Zhuhai, with a range of drones on display including the WL-10 China showcased its new air power at Zhuhai, with a range of drones on display including the WL-10 Photo: AFP / Noel Celis