With its cartoon eyes and distinctive red and yellow body, the Haidou-01 looks much like the baby clown fish from the Pixar animation Finding Nemo.
And like Nemo, the unmanned submersible has been on a great adventure – in its case, a trip to the bottom of the world’s deepest undersea trench.
Footage of the brightly coloured explorer at work showed its mechanical arms carrying out tests of the seabed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
At one point it even waves a little plaque – bearing the name of its creators – directly at the camera.
The submersible’s non-threatening appearance belies the seriousness of some of its real-world deployment – which includes hunting for deep sea minerals and anchoring tracking technology on the seabed that helps to detect submarine activity.
“This marks a new stage in the development of China’s unmanned underwater vehicle technology and its ability to explore and operate in the deep sea,” Xinhua enthused.
In recent years China has made major advances in deep-sea exploration, joining the United States, Russia, Japan and France in 2011 in an exclusive club of nations that have sent “oceanauts” deeper than 4,500 metres.
The following year it sent the same submersible down to a depth of 7,062 metres, putting it head-to-head in a two-way race with privately-held US explorers.
China’s military is also playing catch-up with US armed forces in unmanned underwater vehicles (or UUVs). Last year the world got its first real glimpse of a new type of military-grade drone, when two of them were included in the military parade marking the People’s Republic of China’s 70th anniversary.
Experts said the seven-metre long machines seemed to be showing off submarine-detecting and signal blocking equipment. Their size allows them to launch sub-fleets of smaller drones, as well as undertake missions lasting as long as a couple of months.
The success of the Haidou-01 – the submersible’s name means ‘measuring the sea’ in Chinese – coincides with the American launch of more of their own UUVs in the South China Sea. Last year a group of Chinese trawlermen received financial rewards for handing over non-Chinese UUVs found in waters where they were fishing. These seem to have been smaller vessels, commonly known as ‘gliders’ and used more for general reconnaissance. They don’t descend as deep as the Haidou-01 – which dropped to a depth of 10,907 metres in its latest mission, setting a new Chinese record.
The submersible – which measures 3.8 metres in length – is operated remotely and capable of spending up to 40 days underwater in a single expedition. Its creators at the Shenyang Institute of Automation insist that the sub’s mission is purely scientific, primarily to compile a better profile of the deep seabed and a better understanding of the life-forms found at the deepest point on the Earth’s surface. “The significance of these underwater vehicles is that they can replace humans to explore the treasures and mysteries deep in the sea,” said Liu Jian of the Shenyang Institute of Automation.
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