China allegedly developed a new 'flying submarine' drone that could penetrate aircraft carrier defenses

When it reaches the water surface, the drone can fly at 74.6 mph.
Christopher McFadden
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Kubilay Yılmaz/Interesting EngineeringiStock
  • China is allegedly developing a novel "flying submarine" unmanned drone.
  • It could have important civilian and military uses, such as examining underwater mines.
  • According to a researcher, using this kind of vessel is one of the most affordable and efficient ways to compromise an air carrier fleet's defense system.

In maritime warfare news, Chinese scientists have apparently developed a novel "flying" unmanned submarine drone. So far, it's been only reported in Chinese news sources that the new drone could be one of the cheapest, most effective methods to cripple the defense system of an aircraft carrier fleet.

An eastern Chinese research team claims to have developed and tested a prototype submarine drone with the ability to fly swiftly through the air. According to experts on the subject, the autonomous watercraft is capable of performing both military and civilian tasks, such as examining underwater mines.

The drone can approach an underwater target slowly and stay in one place for a considerable amount of time since it is propelled by four propellers, including a pair at the front that tilt.

When the drone reaches the water's surface, two sizable wings that fold over its back can extend, enabling it to fly at a speed of 74.6 mph (120 kph), which is roughly twice as fast as a typical drone powered by rotor blades.

The drone “consumes little energy when cruising in fixed-wing mode, so it can perform some fast, long-range missions in the air”, said professor Ang Haisong, lead project scientist with the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in a paper published in the peer-reviewed Unmanned Systems Technology in June.

A researcher studying similar technology at Northwestern Polytechnical University in Xian, Shaanxi province, has been reported as saying that China was developing numerous types of “transmedia vessels” that could travel in both air and water.

“They are mainly for military applications. Some can fly at supersonic speed,” the unnamed researcher told the South China Morning Post. This researcher was not involved in Ang’s study but requested not to be named because of the sensitivity of the technology.

If true, such a craft could leave surface fleets highly vulnerable to attack

This kind of "transmedia vessel", according to Ji Wanfeng, professor at Yantai's Naval Aviation University in Shandong province, is one of the simplest and most efficient ways to compromise an aircraft carrier fleet's defenses.

According to an estimation by Ji and his coworkers, the multilayered defense system of a contemporary warship can take down almost half of the approaching aircraft, missiles, or conventional drones. However, they explain, a "transmedia vessel" has the ability to submerge when identified by radar and emerge again to avoid sonar.

Ji said that even a small number of these drones may overwhelm or confound a warship's computer systems.

According to a report Ji's team published in the Chinese journal Electronics Optics & Control last month, if a transmedia vessel could fly at a speed of more than 93 mph (150kph), it would have a survival rate of close to 100% when launched from a distance of 62 miles (100km).

This type of drone “can achieve efficient strikes against the enemy’s key targets. It will surely become a powerful supplement to the Chinese navy’s existing equipment combat methods and tactics,” Ji’s paper said.

An airbag in the belly of the flying submarine created by Ang's team can be filled with water to change buoyancy, allowing it to maintain a specific depth without producing noise with its propellers. Its sleek body, which resembles a normal submarine when traveling in water with its wings folded, allows for less drag and more agility.

Surface waves and the drone's simultaneous interactions with air and water make the takeoff process unstable, according to Ang's team, if the vessel rises directly out of the water.

To correct this, they created a sophisticated control system that enables the submarine to glide on the waves before lifting.

Boris Ushakov, a Soviet engineering student, developed a submersible plane that could spy on ships before diving beneath the ocean to surprise them with torpedoes way back in the 1920s. But because the undersea components rendered the aircraft too heavy, the Red Army abandoned the plan.

The first flying submarine was created by American defense contractor Donald Reid in the 1960s, but due to insufficient power, it could only hover for a short period of time.

According to reports, the US military has supported a large number of research projects to create manned or unmanned underwater planes for clandestine operations, but the majority of the programs have been delayed due to technical difficulties.

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