KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – In the best of times, Ukrainian drone enthusiasts flew into the sky on their gadgets to photograph weddings, fertilize soybeans or race with other drones for fun. Now some are risking their lives by creating drone volunteer forces to help their country repel the Russian invasion.
“Kiev and you need your drone at this time of rage!” read a post on Facebook late last week from the Ukrainian military urging citizens to donate hobby drones and volunteer as experienced pilots to fly them.
One entrepreneur who runs a retail store selling consumer drones in the capital said his entire stock of about 300 drones from Chinese company DJI had been scattered for the cause. Others are working to get more drones across the border from friends and colleagues in Poland and other European countries.
“Why are we doing this? We have no other choice. This is our land, our home, ”said Denis Sushko, head of the operational department of the Kiev company DroneUA, which before the war helped provide drone services to farmers and energy companies.
Sushko ran away from home late last week after his family had to hide from an explosion nearby. He spoke to the Associated Press by phone and text message Friday after climbing a tree for a better reception.
“We try to use absolutely everything that can help protect our country, and drones are a great tool for real-time data,” said Sushko, who does not have a drone but provides expertise. “Now no one in Ukraine is indifferent. Everyone is doing what they can. ”
Unlike the much larger Turkish-made combat drones in Ukraine’s arsenal, conventional consumer drones are not widely used as weapons, but they can be powerful means of reconnaissance. Citizens used aerial cameras to track Russian convoys and then transmit images and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops. Some of the cars have night vision and heat sensors.
But there is a downside: DJI, a leading supplier of consumer drones in Ukraine and around the world, provides a tool that can easily locate an inexperienced drone operator, and no one really knows what a Chinese firm or its customers can do. this data. This is a concern for some volunteers. The DJI declined to discuss details of how it reacted to the war.
Taras Troyak, a DJI drone dealer who founded the Kiev store, said DJI was sending mixed signals that it was providing preferential access to or disabling its AeroScope drone detection platform, which both sides in the conflict could potentially use to monitor. the flight paths of another and the connection between the drone and the device that controls it.
DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said wartime use was “never expected” when the company set up AeroScope to give police and aviation authorities – including customers in both Russia and Ukraine – a window into detecting drones. flying in their immediate airspace. He said that some users in Ukraine reported technical problems, but DJI did not turn off the tool and did not give preferential access.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian drone experts said they were doing their best to train operators to protect their location.
“There are a number of techniques that can increase the level of security in their use,” said Sushko.
Sushko said that many industry representatives are now trying to transport to Ukraine from neighboring European countries smaller drones, including alternative DJI. They can also be used to assist in search and rescue operations.
In Ukraine, there is a thriving community of experts in the field of drones, some of whom were educated at the National Aviation University or the neighboring Kiev Polytechnic University and founded local startups on drones and robotics.
“They have this homemade industry and all these smart people building drones,” said Faine Greenwood, a consultant on U.S. drones for civilian purposes such as disaster response.
The Troiak store under the DJI brand in Kyiv, which is now closed because the city’s residents have taken refuge, has been a hub for the community because it has a maintenance center, trainings and a hobby club. Even President Vladimir Zelensky once visited a store to buy a drone for one of his children, Troyak said.
The public group on Facebook, focused on drones, run by Troiak, has more than 15,000 members who trade tips on how to help Ukrainian troops. One photographer from the drone, who belongs to the Ukrainian Drone Racing Association team, told the Associated Press that he decided to donate his DJI Mavic drone to the military rather than trying to control it himself. He and others asked not to give names, fearing for their safety.
“The risk to civilian drone operators in Ukraine remains high,” said Mike Monique, an Australian drone safety expert. “Determining the operator’s location could lead to directed missile fire, given what we’ve seen in combat so far. These are no longer rules of interaction, as in previous conflicts. ” In recent days, Russian-language channels in the Telegram messaging program discussed ways to search for Ukrainian drones, Monnick said.
Some members of the Ukrainian drone community already have experience of using their expertise in conflict zones due to the country’s long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Monica’s firm, DroneSec, has over the past year tracked several cases where both sides in the conflict have armed small drones with explosives. Ukrainians said they learned that small quadcopter drones, such as those sold in stores, are rarely capable of hitting targets with explosive cargo.
“It would seem short-sighted to spend it,” said Greenwood, a consultant from Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I believe the main goal will be intelligence. But when things get desperate, who knows. ”
DJI also has experience responding to fighters who tried to arm their drones, and used so-called “geoprotection” technology to block drone movements during the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It is unclear whether this will be done in Ukraine; even if it is, there are ways to get around it.
Small civilian drones do not match the Russian military, but are likely to become increasingly important in the protracted war, leaving drone manufacturers unable to be completely neutral. Any action they take or avoid is “indirectly taking sides,” said PV Singer, a New American staffer who has written a book on military robots.
“We will see the special armament of these small civilian drones just as we have seen in conflicts around the world from Syria to Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan,” Singer said. “Like the IED or the Molotov cocktail, they will not change the course of the battle, but they certainly make it harder for Russian soldiers.”