An Indonesian fisherman working near the Selayar Islands of South Sulawesi province handed over what appeared to be a Chinese underwater drone to the local police, who then surrendered it to the military.
The unmanned undersea vehicle (UUV) was reported to be over seven feet long with a sensor array on its nose. Pictures revealed a drone looking like a torpedo with wings in the center of its body and a long antenna protruding from the back.
A Twitter user with the handle @Jatosint noticed the close likeness of the newfound drone to the Sea Wing UUV developed by the Shenyang Institute of Automation of the Chinese Academic of Sciences.
A fisherman in Selayar Island, South Sulawesi, has found a UUV:
Length: 225 cm
Tail: 18 cm
Wingspan: 50 cm
Trailing antenna: 93 cm
Very similar to China's 'Sea Wing' UUV, which, if it's true, raised many questions especially how it managed to be found deep inside our territory pic.twitter.com/RAiX8Xw2BK
— JATOSINT (@Jatosint) December 29, 2020
Using an internal system that includes a contracting balloon and the help of its wings and tail, the Sea Wing UUV repeatedly dives and surfaces as it moves forward underwater. Some claim that a Sea Wing can dive four miles below the surface and can remain in the water for over a month.
While the specifications of the UUV the Indonesian fisherman found remain unknown, ocean glider-type drones are commonly used to conduct hydrographic surveys and to create ocean maps.
Sea Wings are reportedly deployed for research as their sensors can measure currents, water temperature, and oxygen levels. The results can help create detailed maritime charts that aid in any underwater movement such as commercial shipping and submarine activity.
Other glider UUVs similar to the found drone have been spotted in Indonesian waters in recent years. One was found in January 2020 near Masalembu Island 400 miles west of the Selayar Islands while another was found among the Riau Islands in March of 2019. These islands are located near multiple sea lanes along the Indian Ocean and South China Sea.
Contested South China Sea
This recent escalation in sea drone sightings has led to speculation that the Chinese government is conducting an underwater survey of naval routes for its maritime operations, especially since the Chinese survey ship Xiang Yang Hong 06 launched 12 UUVs in the Eastern Indian Ocean in December 2019. Although the Chinese government did not report any of these drones to be missing, December 2019 reports suggested that 14 drones were released instead of 12. However, newer reports suggest that only 12 were used.
Scrutiny over the appearance of this alleged Chinese drone can also be connected, at least in part, to the dispute over the South China Sea. Countries such as Brunei, Thailand, and the Philippines have engaged in increasingly contentious disagreements with China over its claims of ownership of large swaths of the sea for many years.