China has created the world’s first artificial intelligence-driven ship named the “Zhu Hai Yun,” which is able to navigate autonomously through open bodies of water. It is the world’s first autonomous, crewless ship that can deploy dozens of drones.

The ship known as Zhu Hai Yun was largely described as a marine research vessel that had the primary aim to help marine scientists to observe and gain data underwater. Chinese scientists have also described it as a tool that could be used in marine disaster prevention and mitigation, marine environment monitoring, and offshore wind farm maintenance aside from conducting scientific research.

“The intelligent, unmanned ship is a beautiful, new ‘marine species’ that will bring revolutionary changes for ocean observation,” Scientist and Professor Dake Chen said, who is also the Director of the Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory (Zhuhai) at Sun Yat-sen University.

The construction of the ship was reportedly started in July of last year by the Huangpu Wenchong Shipyard. This company is reportedly a subsidiary of China’s largest shipbuilding company, the China State Shipbuilding Corporation.

The Zhu Hai Yun is reported to be 290 feet long, 46 feet wide, and 20 feet deep with a displacement of 2,000 tons, reaching speeds of up to 19 knots. The vessel’s large deck enables it to carry drones and smaller, unmanned ships and submersibles.

While unmanned surface vessels have been very common over the past few years as the technology progresses, what reportedly sets it apart from the other unmanned ships aside from its drones is its custom-built artificial intelligence system.

Called the Intelligent Mobile Ocean Stereo Observing System, developed by Southern Marine Science and Engineering Guangdong Laboratory (Zhuhai), it is able to direct the various unmanned drones, ships, and submersibles. Forming a network of unmanned systems together, it creates a unified effort to observe and collect data. Furthermore, its drones are reportedly able to conduct air, sea surface, and underwater monitoring remotely, making it a very powerful tool for ocean research – thus earning it the moniker of a drone “mothership” or a “drone ship. The shipyard that built the vessel shares that these all together can create three-dimensional dynamic observations through the use of unmanned drones, boats, and submersibles.

Chinese marine scientists have said that the new ship is a large boost to their work and that the help of artificial intelligence only bolsters their capacity to do in-depth marine observations.

However, with that being said, the vessel can also have a range of military uses if the same technology is used to create another ship of the same caliber. In fact, the Chinese have already started developing their own line of unmanned surface vessels specifically for military and security-related activities.

The Global Times, a Chinese state-sponsored newspaper, has reported that a certain Chinese company named Yunzhou Tech had carried out a demonstration where 56 unmanned boats swarmed somewhere in the Chinese sea. The paper further said that Yunzhou Tech had successfully verified the effectiveness of its technology’s formation control, and route planning, stating that it was able to configure the swarm to avoid conflicts within it. There, they demonstrated the technology’s capacity to do multi-formation autonomous transformation technology.

This was previously a challenge for Chinese scientists as the ocean can be highly dynamic, thus affecting the method by which the clusters create their own formation. This makes controlling their routes, stabilizing the vessels, and maintaining accuracy fairly difficult for artificial intelligence to pull off.

Yunzhou founder Zhang Yunfei stated that the company had some ten technologies that are world leaders in their respective functions and that its “ship drone technology is at a similar level with the US.”

Later in 2021, the same company designed an unnamed high-speed vessel that could “quickly intercept, besiege, and expel invasive targets,” which was hailed as a breakthrough for their country.

Six unmanned high-speed vessels cruise and guard Chinese sea territory in a highly dynamic, complex environment (Yunzhou Tech via Global Times). Source:
Six unmanned high-speed vessels cruise and guard Chinese sea territory in a highly dynamic, complex environment (Yunzhou Tech via Global Times). Source:

Videos of their demonstration showed six high-speed unmanned vessels guarding Chinese waters. The Global Times reported that the ships were able to conduct “collaborative perception, high-speed tracking, evidence collection, interception, and expelling known targets at sea.” During the demonstration, the ships were reported to be making decisions completely by themselves, indicating the advanced nature of their artificial intelligence.

When you combine these abilities by ships to cluster, swarm and conduct sea operations with minimal human intervention plus this new technology offered by the Zhu Hai Yun, it could very well be integrated for military purposes. For example, its ability to be able to do three-dimensional dynamic observations could be utilized to track submarines quite accurately. Thus, the Zhu Hai Yun can make a combat difference in terms of its navigational abilities in mapping out the sea floor.

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If the Chinese combine these tracking technologies with their ability to direct unmanned ships to swarm, they could be used as offensive tools to target enemy surface ships, making it easier to detect and fire upon targets as they have drones that are able to survey the air, sea surface, and underwater. More so, their submersibles can also help locate mines and enemy targets underwater.

Yes, we understand that the Chinese have branded it as a maritime research vessel, but note that they have done this in the past to disguise military equipment used underwater. For example, the Chinese had installed undersea surveillance equipment on their seas to monitor and observe “environmental changes.” But it could very well be used to detect submarines within its waters.

For now, the Zhu Hai Yun remains what China says it to be, a maritime research vessel. But to those who have military experience, especially for our US Navy readers out there, you all very well know the military implications of this vessel and how artificial intelligence is a definite booster to naval defense.