“Kyiv needs you and your drone in this moment of anger!” read a Facebook post from the Ukrainian military late last week urging citizens to donate hobbyist drones and volunteer to operate them as experienced pilots.
An entrepreneur who runs a retail store selling consumer drones in the capital said his entire inventory of around 300 drones made by Chinese company DJI was distributed for the purpose. Others are working to get more drones across the border from friends and colleagues in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.
“Why are we doing this? We have no other choice. This is our country, our homeland,” said Denys Sushko, operations manager at Kyiv-based industrial drone technology company DroneUA, which before the war helped provide drone services to farmers and energy companies.
Sushko fled his home late last week after his family had to take shelter from an explosion nearby. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone and text message on Friday after climbing a tree for better reception.
“We’re trying to use absolutely anything that can help protect our country, and drones are a great tool for getting real-time data,” said Sushko, who doesn’t have a drone with him but brings expertise. “Now nobody remains indifferent in Ukraine. Everyone is doing what they can.”
Unlike the much larger Turkish-built combat drones that Ukraine has in its arsenal, commercial drones aren’t very useful to consumers as weapons – but they can be powerful reconnaissance tools. Civilians have used the aerial cameras to track Russian convoys and then relayed the images and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops. Some of the machines have night vision and thermal sensors.
But there is a downside: DJI, the leading provider of consumer drones in Ukraine and around the world, offers a tool that can easily pinpoint the location of a novice drone operator, and no one really knows what the Chinese company or its customers are this could start with this data. This worries some volunteers. DJI declined to discuss details of how it has responded to the war.
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Taras Troiak, a distributor of DJI drones who opened the Kiev retail store, said DJI has sent mixed signals on whether it will grant — or disable — preferential access to its AeroScope drone detection platform, which both parties to the conflict may be able to use to monitor the Flight paths of each other and the communication links between a drone and the device controlling it.
DJI spokesman Adam Lisberg said wartime use “was never expected” when the company founded AeroScope to give law enforcement and aviation agencies — including customers in Russia and Ukraine — a window to detect drones flying in their fly in the immediate airspace. He said some users in Ukraine reported technical issues, but DJI hasn’t disabled the tool or given preferential access.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian drone experts said they were doing everything in their power to teach operators how to protect their whereabouts.
“There are a number of tricks you can use to increase the level of security when using it,” Sushko said.
Sushko said many in the industry are now trying to ship more small drones – including DJI alternatives – from neighboring European countries to Ukraine. They can also be used to support search and rescue operations.
Ukraine has a thriving community of drone experts, some of whom trained at the National Aviation University or the nearby Kyiv Polytechnic University and later founded local drone and robotics startups.
“You have this homegrown industry and all these smart people building drones,” said Faine Greenwood, a US-based consultant on drones for civilian uses like disaster relief.
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Troiak’s DJI store in Kyiv, which is now closed because city residents are sheltering, has been a hub for that community as it operates a maintenance center and hosts training and a hobby club. Even the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, once visited the store to buy a drone for one of his children, Troiak said.
A public drone-focused Facebook group managed by Troiak has more than 15,000 members who have shared tips on helping Ukrainian troops. A drone photographer affiliated with Ukraine’s Drone Racing Team Association told The Associated Press he decided to donate his DJI Mavic drone to the military rather than try to fly it himself. He and others asked not to be named, fearing for their safety.
“The risk for civilian drone operators in Ukraine is still high,” said Australian drone safety expert Mike Monnik. “Locating the operator’s location could result in directional missile fire given what we’ve seen in the fighting so far. These are no longer rules of engagement like we had in previous conflicts.” In recent days, Russian-language channels of messaging app Telegram have featured discussions on how to find Ukrainian drones, Monnik said.
Some in Ukraine’s drone community already have experience using their expertise in conflict zones due to the country’s longstanding conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Monnik’s company DroneSec has prosecuted several cases in the past year alone in which both sides of this conflict have armed small drones with explosives. One thing Ukrainians have learned is that small quadcopter drones like those sold in stores are rarely effective at hitting a target with explosive payloads.
“It seems a little short-sighted to waste one,” said Greenwood, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultant. “I suppose the main goal would be reconnaissance. But when things get desperate, who knows.”
DJI also has experience responding to war fighters attempting to arm its drones and has used “geofencing” technology to block drone movement during conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It is not yet clear whether this will also be the case in Ukraine; Even if this is the case, there are ways around it.
Small civilian drones are no match for Russian combat power, but are likely to become increasingly important in a protracted war, leaving drone manufacturers with no option to remain completely neutral. Any action they take or avoid is “indirectly siding with,” said PW Singer, a New America fellow who has written a book on war robots.
“We’re going to see ad hoc armament of these small civilian drones, similar to what we’ve seen in conflicts around the world, from Syria to Iraq and Yemen to Afghanistan,” Singer said. “Just like an IED or a Molotov cocktail, they won’t change the course of the battle, but they will definitely give Russian soldiers a hard time.”
AP video journalist Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.
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