Commercial Drone Tech Proliferates in Ukraine

By Hana Moumen
DJI AeroScope

DJI photo

The Ukraine war has intensified the use of commercial drones, giving the nation an unforeseen opportunity to counter Russian aggression. As a result, drones and their complementary equipment have become among the most sought-after technologies in 2022.

This development has prompted a discussion concerning the policy implications of these commercial-off-the-shelf technologies and their role on the battlefield.

After the full-scale invasion, the Ukrainian government restarted the Aerorozvidka unit — which roughly translates to “aerial reconnaissance” — a team of Ukrainian civilians and military personnel whose main purpose was to track Russian troops with customized commercial drones. The results of this initiative have been consequential to Ukraine’s resistance efforts thus far. On July 20, Ukrainian troops carried out a deadly strike on a nuclear power plant near the Russian-occupied city of Zaporizhzhia using a PD-2 kamikaze drone, according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

Ukraine has also received drones from the United States and other NATO countries that have been used to counter Russian tanks. For example, Ukraine’s Turkish-made TB-2s have carried out numerous successful operations against Russian forces.

Conversely, Russia’s advantage in the drone war has been diminished. As of May, approximately 50 Orlan-10s have been downed by Ukrainian kinetic weapons and jamming systems, according to the Ukranian Ministry of Defense. Further, it has been reported that the Russian defense industry has encountered difficulties in producing large quantities of missile-firing drones that can fly for long periods.

Having witnessed the emergence of drones in battle, it is imperative to understand why such technology has gained prominence.

Roger Bohn, professor emeritus of technology management at the University California San Diego, in an interview said, “Both knowledge and components are now widely available on the internet. A self-taught team can assemble a custom remotely piloted vehicle from mail-order parts in a few days.”

This fact enable drones to present several key advantages.

First, depending on the particular model, they can be inexpensive and convenient: they can be piloted without specialized training and carried in a backpack. They can also extend the range of action of an army and inform the ground activities with geospatial data. Additionally, drones can be used to relay information and push specific narratives. Drone footage can easily be spread on social media and may in some cases be altered. Ultimately, this constant drone reporting could lead in the coming years to a gradual escalation of the “CNN effect” and the sensationalism of 24-hour news cycle.

However, commercial drones have encountered certain obstacles. These include counter-drone technology, anti-aircraft systems, telecommunications and GPS jamming and computer hacking tactics. Additionally, commercial drones have been documented performing at a lower level of speed and maneuverability than military unmanned aerial vehicles.

This vulnerability to jamming, and accompanying lack of robustness, make drones a less reliable tool for critical field operations.

Additionally, it has been observed that the drone operator may be placed at risk. For example, Ukraine uses a significant number of drones from the Chinese brand DJI AeroScope. In May, Ukrainian authorities accused DJI of communicating Ukrainian operators’ locations to Russian officials. As a result of this action, U.S. drones and jammers became in increasingly high demand.

Despite the obstacles, commercial drones maintain advantages that place them in contention for prime future usage.

They will continue to improve through private funding, without government intervention.

Bohn said: “Rapid technological change is setting off a period of experimentation with many new ideas for propulsion, body plans, communication, control and payload.”

Competition in the smartphone industry especially guarantees continuous improvements in miniaturization, power consumption, and other performance, he added.

“In the long run the drone industry will shake out into a few dominant designs, but that is probably 10 years away,” he said.

Commercial drones have contributed to a significant change in battlefield strategy. Currently, any individual with the appropriate skill set can build a customized drone using commercial kits. This has been demonstrated through the existence of drones constructed from scratch, utilizing subparts of devices from China, France and Turkey.

This gray area of drone creation could lead to further policy changes. U.S. policymakers could heavily tax or block the exports of these necessary components. Further policy implications could also address the difficulty in differentiating commercial drones from military technology.

The Ukraine war has demonstrated that with the right technology, it is possible for a nation to resist forces that are much larger in number. Commercial drones are an essential piece of these new technologies. As a result, demand remains high for commercial drones, jam-resistant U.S. drones and affiliated jamming technologies.

These devices have assumed unprecedented importance on the battlefield. They see without being seen, extend the range of vision, reinforce communication messages, and can influence military strategy like never before.

Hana Moumen is a junior policy fellow at NDIA.


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Unmanned Air Vehicles, International

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