China’s Fleet of Manta Ray-Inspired Undersea Spy Drones

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China is reportedly expanding its fleet of coral-monitoring submersibles while planning to develop larger models that could serve for military reconnaissance purposes.

A team of researchers from Northwestern Polytechnical University (led by Professor Cao Yong) developed these innovative submersibles designed to mimic manta rays, which represent a major advancement in both marine biology research and potential military applications.

According to Interesting Engineering, the development of these soft-body submersibles began in 2006, when they were initially small, lightweight, and primarily used for monitoring coral reefs. The design inspired by the swimming patterns of marine organisms proved itself effective in navigating and collecting data from complex underwater environments.

“This year, we are preparing to carry out deep-sea applications of 800 kg class [submersibles],” Professor Cao Yong said in a statement, adding they will “even develop a ton-class prototype in the future, which can carry more powerful payloads and sail farther, including … future integrated reconnaissance and strike [roles].”

China’s expansion of its submersible fleet is expected to significantly enhance its capabilities in both civilian and military domains. Apart from the smaller submersibles that are designed for coral reef monitoring, researchers are developing larger models that will be able to dive deeper and longer, collect more comprehensive data, and carry additional equipment (increasing their functionality).

These manta ray submersibles have very advanced tech, including cameras, sonar, and the BeiDou navigation system that enables transmitting real-time video and positioning information back to the researchers. They can even reach depths of 1,000 meters.

Though challenges remain, the researchers are hard at work on solving them – one example is the issue of microorganisms attaching to the submersibles’ surfaces and hindering their navigation, which is solved by applying a special gel that makes these microorganisms “mistakenly think that this is seawater.”

It is important to note that China is not the only country working on manta ray-like submersibles – we recently reported about a similar underwater drone developed by US company Northrop Grumman, which is designed for “long-duration, long-range missions in ocean environments where humans can’t go,” can anchor to the sea floor to hibernate in a low power mode and carry payloads for various missions. DARPA reportedly commissioned this drone as part of its mission to “provide groundbreaking technology to create strategic surprise.”