China is developing an army of tiny drone ships, which experts say could be used as a “shark swarm” against enemies during sea battles.
Tests involving 56 of the unmanned vessels were carried out off the Wanshan Archipelago in the South China Sea last week.
Oceanalpha, the company behind the craft, said in a statement drills were carried out to demonstrate the boats’ ability to work in formation, as well as their potential use in naval warfare.
Video footage released of tests shows drones sailing in a flotilla, avoiding each other as they change direction rapidly.
The fleet then arranges to form the two Chinese characters “junmin”, a reference to cooperation between the civil and defence sectors, before joining in the shape of an aircraft carrier.
Oceanalpha confirmed the drones are designed to overwhelm enemies during sea battles.
“Once equipped with weapons, unmanned small combat vessels can attack the enemy in large numbers, similar to drones,” Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, told the Global Times.
“A mothership will control the swarm in combat, making them easy to deploy.”
Zhang Yunfei, founder and chairman of Oceanalpha, said in a statement that his company had performed the largest-ever demonstration of unmanned vessels at sea.
He added the drones had a number of civil and military uses and would “play an important role in safeguarding the nation's maritime interests.”
The firm did not release the exact location of tests, but said they took place at the Wanshan Marine Test Field, a 772 square-kilometre site under construction for the sole purpose of drone craft drills.
Several Chinese companies, universities and defence contractors are now involved in developing technology for the unmanned boat industry.
In December, Harbin Engineering University in Heilongjiang province and Shenzhen-based nautical firm HiSIBI announced they had developed the world’s fastest drone ship, which can travel at around 50 knots (58mph).
The UK, United States and Israel are also developing unmanned craft to be used for military purposes.
The operations come amid heightened tensions relating to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
China has been developing military installations on a series of reefs, atolls and artificial islands in the region, despite a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The court said there was no legal basis for China’s maritime claims that extended 1,000 miles beyond its shore to waters abutting Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Vietnam.
Last month, Chinese authorities reacted angrily after two US warships sailed close to the disputed Paracel Islands, describing the move as a “provocation”.
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