Researchers in China revealed that they have developed an automated underwater drone capable of identifying and attacking enemy craft without human input. The first successful trial of the vessel came a decade ago as part of a program blending robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) dating to the 1990s.

China reveals advanced automated military submarine

The formerly secret program was disclosed earlier this month in a research paper published by Harbin Engineering University. It provided details about the testing of China’s autonomous uncrewed underwater vehicle (UUV). In it, the authors describe a 2010 trial in or near the Taiwan Strait. As part of that, the craft detected, located, and tracked a dummy submarine it determined to be an enemy presence. Without any human intervention, it then fired a blank torpedo that struck the target.

“The needs of future underwater warfare bring new development opportunities for unmanned platforms,” the report published July 2 in the Journal of Harbin Engineering University 1 said. 

Unlike conventional subs that require humans “to fine-tune the sonar from time to time to improve the results of searching and tracking,” the report noted, China’s underwater drone contains “all the subsystems such as information acquisition, target detection, assessment, status and parameter control (they need to) have completely independent decision-making capabilities.” 

Meaning, of course, full autonomy to determine potential threats or enemies, and the capacities to neutralize those without outside instruction.

China underwater drone revealed amid rising tensions

It is not known why China decided to reveal the existence of its underwater attack drone or wider UUV program, but it comes amid rising tensions on several fronts.

As tensions between the US and China have increased in recent years, so too have fears that Beijing may decide to invade Taiwan, which it considers a renegade part of its territory. Discovery of China’s head start in AI applications, and the incorporation of those into advanced military technology is also troubling. News of the autonomous UUV’s successful solo firing of a torpedo, meanwhile, comes in the wake of news that DroneDJ colleague Scott Simmie has written about of automated aerial drones having killed humans without outside instruction.

The Harbin University study was first reported by the South China Morning Post. It described the 2010 test in which the dummy craft was ordered to emit the noise of a submarine, causing the UUV to automatically switch to combat mode as soon as its sonar detected the signal. 

“It circled in a hexagonal pattern and pointed its sonar arrays to various sources of sound, while artificial intelligence tried to filter out ambient noise and determine the nature of the target,” the story said. “One torpedo fired by the drone hit the simulated submarine. For safety reasons, the torpedo was not loaded.”

Though earlier versions of the UUV were apparently designed to operate alone, the Harbin report says that advances in technology – especially communications and AI – will allow them to act in coordinated operations not unlike swarms. Future generation battery capacities, it noted, will permit the craft to lie dormant and undetected in deep positions indefinitely, then be deployed during conflicts to ambush enemy craft.

Photo: Harbin Engineering University

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