Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian troops

At a better time, Ukrainian drone enthusiasts flew gadgets into the sky to take pictures of weddings, fertilize soybean fields, and compete with other drones. Today, some are endangering their lives by forming volunteer drone forces to help their country fight off the Russian invasion.

“Kyiv needs you and your drone at this moment of anger!” Read a Facebook post from the Ukrainian army late last week, donate hobby drones to citizens and give them as experienced pilots. I called on them to volunteer to operate.

An entrepreneur who runs a retail store selling consumer drones in the capital said it was dispersed due to the entire inventory of about 300 drones manufactured by the Chinese company DJI. Others are working to get more drones across borders from friends and colleagues in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

“Why do you do this? There is no other choice. This is our land and our home,” said Denys, head of operations for the Kyiv-based industrial drone technology company Drone UA. Before the war, Sushko helped provide drone services to farmers and energy companies.

Sushko fled his home late last week after the family had to hide from a nearby explosion. He spoke to the Associated Press by phone and text message on Friday after climbing a tree for better reception.

“We are absolutely trying to use everything that helps protect the country. Drones are a great tool for getting real-time data,” he said, offering expertise even though he doesn’t have a drone. Sushko said. It remains indifferent. Everyone can do what they can. “

Unlike the much larger Turkish combat drones that Ukraine has in its arsenal, off-the-shelf consumer drones are less commonly used as weapons, but they can be a powerful reconnaissance tool. Citizens have used aerial cameras to track Russian convoys and relay images and GPS coordinates to the Ukrainian army. Some machines have night vision and heat sensors.

However, there are drawbacks. DJI, a leading provider of consumer drones in Ukraine and around the world, offers tools that make it easy to locate inexperienced drone operators and what Chinese companies and their customers might do. No one really knows. That data. It makes some volunteers uneasy. DJI refused to discuss details about how it responded to the war.

Taras Troiak, a DJI drone dealer who started a retail store in Kyiv, said DJI is sending various signals about whether it is offering or disabling priority access to the drone detection platform AeroScope. .. A communication link between the flight path of the other party and the drone and the device that controls it.

When DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg created AeroScope to provide police and aviation authorities, including both Russian and Ukrainian clients, with a window to detect drones flying in the immediate airspace. , Said that wartime use was “unexpected”. He said some Ukrainian users have reported technical issues, but DJI has not disabled the tools or prioritized access.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian drone experts have said they are doing whatever they can to teach operators how to protect their whereabouts.

“There are many tricks that can increase the level of security when using them,” Sushko said.

According to Sushko, many in the industry are trying to ship more small drones from neighboring European countries to Ukraine, including DJI alternatives. It can also be used to support search and rescue operations.

Ukraine has an active community of drone professionals, some of whom were educated at the National Aviation University or the nearby Kyiv Institute of Technology and found local drone and robotics startups.

“They have this homebrew industry and all these smart people who make drones,” said Faine Greenwood, a US-based consultant on civilian drones such as disaster response.

Troyack’s DJI-branded store in Kyiv was a hub for the community as it was closed to evacuate city dwellers, operated a maintenance center, hosted training sessions and hobby clubs. Even the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, once visited the store to buy a drone for one of his children, Troyack said.

A public Facebook group focused on drones run by Troiak counts over 15,000 members exchanging tips on how to support the Ukrainian army. One of the drone photographers on the team of the Ukrainian Drone Racing Association told The Associated Press that he decided to donate the DJI Mavic drone to the army instead of trying to fly it himself. He and others asked not to be named for fear of their safety.

“The risks for private drone operators in Ukraine are still high,” said Mike Monic, an Australian drone security expert. Involved as we had in previous conflicts. Recently, the Russian channel of the messaging app Telegram has taken up a discussion about how to find a Ukrainian drone, Monnik said.

Part of the Ukrainian drone community has already developed its expertise in conflict zones due to long-term conflicts with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Last year, Monnik’s company, DroneSec, tracked multiple cases on both sides of a conflict that armed a small drone with explosives. One thing Ukrainians have learned is that small quadcopter drones such as those sold in stores are rarely effective in attacking targets with explosive payloads.

Greenwood, a consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, said: “I think the main goal is reconnaissance, but who knows if things are desperate?”

DJI has also worked with fighters trying to weaponize drones and used so-called “geofence” technology to block drone movement during the conflict between Syria and Iraq. It is not yet clear if the same can be done in Ukraine. Even so, there are ways to avoid it.

Small civilian drones are not comparable to Russia’s combat power, but they are becoming more and more important in protracted wars, leaving drone makers with no choice but to be completely neutral. PW Singer, a New American fellow who wrote a book about war robots, said the actions they take and avoid are “indirectly on their side.”

“From Syria to Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan, you can see the extraordinary armament of these little civilian drones, just as they did in conflicts around the world. Like IEDs and Molotov cocktails, they are in battle. It won’t change the course, but it will definitely be difficult for Russian soldiers. “


AP video journalist Nathan Elgren contributed to this report.