Two recent and interconnected developments out of China suggest that the world's most populous nation has big plans for the deep seas.
China is designing a manned deep-sea "space station" to hunt for mineral resources in the South China Sea, according to a recent Bloomberg report. The proposed location is significant for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the South China Sea is a highly disputed area these days among China and its neighbors, especially Vietnam and the Philippines.
Vertically speaking, the location is also pretty remarkable for different reasons. The oceanic base would be built as deep as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) below the surface, and would be inhabited by a full time crew. No one has ever attempted to build a manned underwater station at those depths.
But more worrisome for international observers is the idea that the underwater station could serve as an anchor for China's other big deep-sea initiative, the so-called Underwater Great Wall of China.
According to reports that surfaced in May, the underwater wall refers to a network of floating and submerged sensors designed to detect enemy submarines. Intelligence agencies have presumably known about these plans for a while, but China has only recently gone public with details on the system -- and the underwater robots and drones that would be involved.
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In a recent military exhibit, Chinese government officials showed off a fleet of unmanned vehicles -- a.k.a. sea drones -- that would be part of the underwater wall defense system. These drones would be capable of maneuvering both on the surface of the water and at various depths beneath the waves. The sea drones would also be capable of carrying anti-submarine weapons and other payloads. The image above shows a kind of diorama exhibit from the Chinese presentation.
Back to the South China Sea space station: While the manned underwater base would be chiefly used for natural resource development, the platform will also be movable and could be used for military purposes, said Chinese officials at yet another recent presentation.
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China's plans -- for a deep-sea space station and an underwater wall of drones -- should keep military strategists around the world busy for the next few years. On the more hopeful side, both projects could have massive potential for the advancement of undersea scientific projects.
Originally published on Discovery News.