In the global race to develop autonomous vehicles of every stripe, China has been no slacker. Every mode of transport, from self-driving buses, to driverless cars, pilotless subway trains and all manner of aerial drones have been put through the paces in recent years on China’s roads and flight paths.
The unmanned craze is sweeping the commercial realm too: with the advent of staffless liquor stores, sex shops and even self-driving mobile groceries tiptoeing into the marketplace, commentators are increasingly speculating on what these revolutionary new technologies might mean for the economy.
Few of the automations to date however stand to have as large an impact as the development of crewless oceangoing vessels – a goal that China is now actively pursuing in earnest.
Xinhua has announced that construction is now underway for a high-tech test site for unmanned surface ships in Zhuhai that will ultimately cover a combined 750 square kilometers of land and sea. The site, which will include facilities for navigation, communication and berthing, is designed to test functions such as automated route planning, departure, tracking and mooring.
The base is being developed by the Zhuhai city government together with Wuhan University of Technology, the China Classification Society and Oceanalpha – a private company for the development of unmanned surface vehicles.
It’s not the first time an ambitious nautical project has been undertaken in the city of late. In December of last year, an enormous domestic-built amphibious aircraft successfully took off and landed at Zhuhai’s airport and the city’s mayor has said that Zhuhai hopes to become a high-tech base for the development of such vessels in the years to come.
The vast majority of the world’s international freight is still transported by sea and automation is one of the key ways for shippers to cut costs, though, of course, at the expense of jobs for maritime workers.
China’s not the only player in the race to develop an effective unmanned surface vessel capable of transporting freight and carrying out other tasks. OpenGovAsia reports that the US military successfully developed a prototype for a crewless vessel capable of traveling long distances without any humans onboard.
Rolls Royce, on the other hand, announced plans in September to develop an unmanned naval vessel capable of traveling for more than 100 days at a time to carry out patrol, surveillance and mine sweeping missions. Meanwhile, the Norwegin Maritime Authority has been developing autonomous, electric-powered surface vessels designed for passenger and cargo transport.