Ukraine’s Drone Warriors

The Aerorozvidka project has 16 dronesThe Aerorozvidka project is one example of what you might call a war startup. Natan Chazin, a Ukrainian battalion commander, founded it in May of 2014 with three other men. His small team has grown to more than 20 people who comprise a special tactical unit supplied with armored and bulletproof vans and 16 drones running on the two most popular software platforms– either NAZA or Pixhawk, developed by 3D Robotics (now maintained by the Linux Foundation). They’re basically hobby drones that have be chopped up and reconfigured for intelligence gathering missions. The Aerorozvidka has also produced its own missiles, which the group is working to incorporate onto UAVs. The enemy has been able to knock down three of them. As far the nascent ceasefire, Chazin says it has not changed matters much from his perspective. (It also doesn’t apply to intelligence gathering.)

For the drone warriors of Ukraine, keeping UAVs in the air is a growing challenge. The Russian-backed militias have access to the latest and most sophisticated in signal jamming and GPS spoofing technology from suppliers like the Moscow-based Radio-Electronic Technologies Corporation, or KRET, and expensive, truck-based anti-aircraft systems like the Krasuha 2.

The most sophisticated UAV that has come out of the Ukrainian side since the start of the conflict is called the PD-1 from developer Igor Korolenko. It has a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, a five-hour flight time, carries electro-optical and infrared sensors as well as a video camera that broadcasts on a 128 bit encrypted channel. Its most important feature is the autopilot software that allows the drone to return home in the event that the global positioning system link is jammed or lost.

Drone-based intelligence gathering is often depicted as risk-free compared to manned aircraft or human intelligence gathering, but, says Korolenko, if the drone isn’t secure or the signature is too obvious, the human costs can be very, very high.

“Russian military sometimes track locations of ground control stations,” he wrote Defense One in an email. “Therefore UAV squads have to follow certain security measures – to relocate frequently, to move out antennas and work from shelter, etc. As far as I know, two members of UAV squads were killed from mortar attacks after [their] positions were tracked by Russian electronic warfare equipment.”

Korolenko has either designed or modified several UAVs to help with the war effort. He’s part of a volunteer group called the People’s Project, a kind of tech incubation lab based primarily in Kiev. With its slick website and project-based focus, it shares a lot in common with your average Silicon Valley start up but instead of producing e commerce apps, they’re building to equipment to get to the front as quickly as possible. He describes the business model as “sort of wartime crowdfunding,” Kickstarter for conflict.

Image: The Aerorozvidka project has 16 drones (photo: Aerorozvidka)