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China’s Newest Drone Looks and Swims like a Manta Ray

  • Earlier this month, researchers tested a new drone in the South China Sea that resembles a manta ray.
  • The drone’s shape is designed so that it can flap its wings and “fly” underwater like a real ray, taking advantage of the ray’s shape to travel underwater efficiently.
  • That bio-inspired design could also camouflage the drone from casual observers, allowing it to collect information undetected.

    Earlier this month, Chinese researchers tested a new undersea drone shaped like a manta ray, in what appears to be its first open water test in the South China Sea. Utilizing a type of bio-inspired design, the drone—created by a university with strong ties to the Chinese military—uses the manta ray’s shape to help it efficiently glide through the water.

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    Although China has not yet tied the deep-diving drone to defense applications, it has obvious value as an aerial vehicle that can surreptitiously collect information while blending in with the local wildlife.

    Xinhua, the official state newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, first reported on the drone test on September 6. An accompanying video shows the bright yellow unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) being lowered into the water in the vicinity of the Xisha Islands. In addition to China, Taiwan and Vietnam have staked claim to the islands, also known as the Paracel Islands.

    The unnamed UUV is modeled on the “shape and motion” of a manta ray, and can “flap its wings and slide underwater” like a real ray, per Xinhua. It explains that the rays are the ocean’s “most efficient swimmers,” and ​​are known for “high propulsion efficiency, high mobility and stability, low noise and large load capacity.” (This latter fact might be a translation error and actually refer to the drone itself.) The drone weighs 1,036 pounds and can dive to a depth of 3,362 feet.

    “Vessels which look and move like a fish of some sort may be more stealthy, particularly if creeping into an event harbor.”

    The drone is an example of biomimetics, in which machinery, particularly drones, are designed to resemble living creatures in order to take advantage of the animal’s physical advantages. Undersea authority H.I. Sutton has chronicled a variety of biomimetic UUVs on his Covert Shores blog. Most have mimicked fast underwater animals such as tuna and shark; the Chinese manta ray design might be one of the few to pick a range-efficient design.

    A manta ray at a museum in Osaka, Japan.

    Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of UsGetty Images

    Sutton told Popular Mechanics that the ray design, while range-efficient, may not be the most quiet choice. “Biomimicking uncrewed underwater vehicles are an area of research in several countries, not least because of their military potential. Vessels which look and move like a fish of some sort may be more stealthy, particularly if creeping into an event harbor.”

    Is the manta ray drone destined to become a military robot? The drone combines range, payload, and natural camouflage, making it an ideal candidate to spy on other countries in the Paracel Islands, and other island chains in the South China Sea. Manta rays are also native to the region, preferring warmer equatorial waters, so the presence of a manta ray-shaped object might not set off any alarms. All the while, this particular “manta ray” could be mapping the sea floor near the naval bases of other countries, infiltrating military facilities, or collecting radio and electronic signals for later analysis.

    biomimetic

    Researchers posing with the NWPU drones. South China Sea, 2021.

    Xinhua

    Sutton warns that a manta ray design, while relatively inconspicuous, could include trade-offs that might make them more detectable. “Not everything which looks stealthy is stealthy. These new craft will have to use materials and propulsion which is not a giveaway to modern sonars. Biomimicking drones which use a lot of servos to move the ‘fin’ may not be as stealthy as a traditional propeller.”

    Another clue that the drone is destined for military use is the developer, Northwestern Polytechnical University (NWPU). It’s described by the U.S. government as a “​​Chinese military university that is heavily involved in military research and works closely with the People’s Liberation Army on the advancement of its military capabilities.”

    world robot conference 2019

    A biomimetic robot fish swims in water at the World Robot Conference (WRC) 2019 at Beijing Etrong International Exhibition and Convention Center on August 21, 2019 in Beijing, China.

    VCGGetty Images

    According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, it is known as one of the “Seven Sons of National Defense”—universities engaged in military research and development on behalf of Beijing’s Ministry of Information and Information Technology. NWPU is home to an unusually high number of military research labs, including undersea warfare-related labs like the ​​State Key Laboratory for Underwater Information and Control and the National Defense Key Laboratory of Torpedo Guidance Technology.

    The age of biomimetic drones is approaching fast. Someday in the near future, a fisherman plying his trade in the South China Sea might haul up an unusual “fish” with the rest of his daily catch, one making loud whirring sounds as its servos struggle to keep it moving. In the meantime, China’s neighbors might want to train their sentries to give “manta rays” an extra level of scrutiny.


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