China has begun building a test zone for drone ships, the first of its kind in Asia and reportedly the largest in the world, the state-authorized site China Internet Information Center has reported.
The Wanshan Marine Test Field, set to cover some 225 square nautical miles, or 771 square kilometers, will be established in the highly competitive South China Sea, near Macau and Hong Kong.
The zone will be fitted with communications networks and navigation radars built on nearby islands, which will allow testing of different types of ships in autonomous steering and obstacle avoidance. It is to become the main base for research in the field over the next three to five years.
A joint venture, the project involves the Zhuhai municipal government, China Classification Society (CCS), a private company Yunzhou-Tech leading in unmanned surface vehicles and Wuhan University of Technology, where in 2012 research and development of unmanned multifunctional ships for the local authorities began.
The announcement came just a week after the Chinese government successfully carried out its first test of a drone vessel, the Huster-68, the People's Daily reported. The ship is meant to patrol and block targets at sea. Its developer, the Shenzhen Huazhong University of Science, stated on its website that one of its goals is to help China achieve its ambition of attaining a blue-water naval force.
China has previously presented an unmanned vessel, which is claimed to be the fastest in the world with a maximum speed of more than 90 kilometers per hour.
However, according to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie, as cited by the South China Morning Post, the country still lags behind the United States and Israel in the industry of unmanned ships.
At the same time, unmanned vessels are seen as a potential means for remote patrol and enforcement of the Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea, where some areas are being disputed among China, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Collin Koh, who majors in maritime security at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said to the media "In the South China Sea, the vehicles may even potentially become a point of harassment against foreign vessels."