Small drones give Ukraine an unprecedented advantage

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In the snow streets of the northern Ukrainian city of Trostyanets, Russian rocket system fires rockets every second. Tanks and military equipment are parked on both sides of the explosive artillery installation, among houses and near the city’s railway system. However, weapons do not work alone. Dozens of meters above it, a Ukrainian drone is recording the assault. A drone is not a complex military system, but a small commercial vehicle that anyone can buy.

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Since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in late February, both sides of the conflict have used drones of all shapes and sizes. At one end of the scale are large military drones that can be used for surveillance from the air and to attack targets on the ground. In contrast, small commercial drones can be flown by people without any special training and carried in a suitcase-sized box. Although both types of drones have been used in previous conflicts, the current scale of use of small commercial drones in Ukraine is unprecedented.

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Drone videos posted on social media show the brutality of the war and show what happened during the battles. Drones have taken over the fighting in the ruined Ukrainian city of Bucha, with lines of tanks moving through the streets and troops moving along them. Commercial drones helped journalists document scale of destruction in Kyiv and Mariupolflying over burnt buildings turned into ruins.

Russian military caught on camera allegedly shooting at citizens holding their hands up. A Ukrainian is shown on the video from the drone troops shelling Russian positions, monitoring their movements in real time and ambush of Russian troops. In one video, a drone spots Russian military vehicles leaving troops behind. run after transport and fall into the snow. In another, a drone is hovering in the air and recording a helicopter. shot down as it flies by.

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“Drones have changed the way war was supposed to be fought,” says Valeriy Yakovenko, founder of Ukrainian drone company DroneUA. “It’s all about reconnaissance, collecting and transmitting data on the movement or disposition of enemy troops, and adjusting artillery fire. We are talking about actions to combat sabotage, and this, of course, is search and rescue operations.” Yakovenko estimates Ukrainian forces use more than 6,000 drones for reconnaissance and say they can connect to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite systems to upload footage. “In 2014, drones became the focus of reconnaissance units, but their scale is nothing compared to what we see today,” he says. (Russia first launched an invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.)

Both Ukraine and Russia have used military drones Throughout the war– and Ukraine received US drone donations. These military drones can often fly at high altitudes for extended periods of time and fire at targets. including ships. However, the use of small commercial drones in such large numbers stands out, the researchers say. These drones, which can sometimes be fragile and unable to fly far from their operators or stay airborne for long periods, have provided tactical advantages in some cases. (Commercial drones have been used in previous conflicts, like in Syriabut not as widely as in Ukraine.)

A Ukrainian soldier stands next to a downed Russian drone near the Research Institute of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine after the strike in northwest Kyiv, March 22, 2022.

Photo: ARIS MESSINIS/Getty Images

Civilian drone researcher Fane Greenwood tracked and logged almost 350 incidents in which consumer drones were used in Ukraine, and video materials were published on Twitter, Telegram, YouTube and other social networks. many clips that Greenwood also mapped, were recorded by the armed forces, but others were captured by civilians and journalists. Documented incidents likely represent only a small fraction of the use of drones in Ukraine. In addition to capturing potential war crimes, Yakovenko says drones are being used to inspect damaged buildings and repair damaged or failed power supplies.

“Using them gives you cheap aerial surveillance or even strike capability,” says Ulrike Franke, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who has studied the use of drones in war. Drones allow troops on the ground to immediately observe surrounding troops, retarget weapons, and take actions that can stop an enemy advance or save lives. “You have individuals or small groups of militias who are suddenly getting their own aerial surveillance — that’s something you didn’t have 10 years ago. Thanks to this, of course, there were tactical successes and tactical victories.

In addition to providing direct surveillance, which can contribute to intelligence gathering, video footage captured by consumer drones can facilitate prosecution after the end of the war. “This is one of the first times that drones have collected so much really applicable information to investigate war crimes against civilians,” says Greenwood. While there are questions about what footage would be admissible in lawsuits, Greenwood and others are in the business of backing up and preserving drone footage in Ukraine.

Chief among the commercial drones used in Ukraine are the Chinese company DJI, in particular, its Mavic lineup. Consumer drones are considered among the easiest to buy and use. According to Greenwood, both Ukrainian and Russian forces were seen using drones. At the start of the war, Ukrainian authorities accused DJI of allowing Russian forces to use their drone detection system to target troops, although the company vehemently denies this, and no hard evidence has been presented..

At the end of April, DJI announced that temporarily suspend sales both in Russia and Ukraine. The company has consistently stated that it does not sell its products for military use. refused to include modifications that would allow such use. “DJI took this action not to make a statement about any country, but to make a statement about our principles,” said DJI spokesman Adam Leesberg. “DJI does not tolerate any use of our drones to cause harm, and we are temporarily suspending sales in these countries to ensure that no one uses our drones in combat.”

Despite the fact that DJI opposes the use of its products for military purposes, drones were used as weapons during the war. “I don’t think people expected DJI commercial drones to be used on such a scale,” says Samuel Bendett, an adviser to CNA, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on Russia and unmanned and autonomous military systems. “This raises the question of whether it is possible to completely stop the proliferation of drones in any conflict.” Charities, companies and individuals donated consumer drones from around the world to Ukrainian forces. (Greenwood says they have seen claims that the Russian military equipped with something donated drones, too much. They also point to Telegram messages that allegedly show pro-Russian militants. discussing the use of commercial drones).

While the use of consumer drones in conflict is not new, the machines are not designed for hostile environments. “The downside to these drones is that they are not military grade,” Bendett says, adding that they can target anti-drone technology designed to take them out of the sky. All the drone experts we spoke to for this article say they haven’t seen as many cases of drones being dropped from the sky as they expected, especially by Russian troops.

“Flying a simple commercial drone in conflict also puts operators at risk,” says Bendett. Greenwood adds that civilians, journalists and aid workers using drones in Ukraine are at greater risk when flying consumer drones. “The big problem with consumer drones and conflict zones, which aid workers are very aware of, is that they are indistinguishable from one another; they look exactly the same.” A consumer drone piloted by a civilian is no different from the same drone piloted by a soldier.

That means there are questions about what would happen under humanitarian law if flying drones were targeted, Greenwood says. “What happens if an aid worker is flying a drone and people assume it’s a drone, it should be flown by a combatant, and therefore it’s a worthy target and I’m going to kill it?”


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