07:31 GMT21 September 2020
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    Officials from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing have set off to uncharted territory as researchers consider building an underwater sea base in the South China Sea for unmanned submarine science and possibly defense operations.

    First reported on by the South China Morning Post on Monday, the project, which saw its beginnings earlier this month at the Beijing academy, is expected to cost Chinese taxpayers an estimated $160 million.

    The AI-powered base will be used to survey seabeds, collect mineral samples and record underwater life forms, the Post reported, noting that the base will be connected via cables to a ship or platform on the water's surface as a means to collect energy. All samples will be examined by artificial intelligence in the base before full reports are transferred to officials.

    Considering that the base will likely be situated in the hadal zone, the deepest portion of the ocean with depths ranging between 19,685 feet and 36,100 feet, one of the top priorities for engineers is developing materials that will be able to withstand intense water pressure.

    "It is as challenging as building a colony on another planet for robotic residents with artificial intelligence," an unidentified scientist who is involved in the project told the Post. "The technology can change the world."

    As for a location, Yan Pin, an academy researcher with the Key Laboratory of Ocean and Marginal Sea Geology in Guangzhou, told the publication that the Manila Trench has potential. "It is the only place in the South China Sea with a depth exceeding [16,000 feet]," he said.

    However, the trench is also known for being one of the world's biggest quake zones, as it is where the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates meet. Rumblings aside, this shouldn't deter researchers from using the area for the new base, according to Yan.

    Acknowledging that the trench is also close to the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed territory claimed by both China and the Philippines, Yan suggested that Beijing could tout the mutual benefits of its yet-to-be developed base to convince Manila to get on board with the project.

    "China and the Philippines should sit down and discuss it," he told the outlet. "A tsunami [warning] is a big selling point. Data collected by the station would benefit all countries in the region."

    "It could save many lives," he stressed.

    Researchers reportedly jumped on the project after Chinese President Xi Jinping made a trip to the sciences institute in April, urging them to do something that hadn't been done before.

    The latest project comes months after China made its interests in building a floating nuclear power plant known. Beijing's nuclear power barge would include 20 nuclear reactors, with the goal of primarily providing power to residents living in the Sansha city in China's Hainan Province, the People's Daily reported at the time. The deployment of such a vessel is expected in 2020.


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