Quadcopter drones were developed for film and photo productions, as well as for agriculture and leisure. A Ukrainian elite unit called Aerorozvidka recognized that they can also be very effective as weapons in war. It is now an important part of Ukraine’s national defense against Russian forces – and quite unique in the world.
30 hackers, drone pilots and other volunteers with an interest in technology belong to the Aerorozvidka. The IT fighters previously worked in different professions. Some of the weapons they use are freely available in stores. A specialty of the unit: convert freely available drones for military use.
The drones are used for observation as well as attack missions. They are used particularly often at night. Then they drop bombs on Russian vehicles out of the darkness. They have already destroyed tanks, missile sites and outposts of the Russian army.
Two particularly prestigious victories are also likely to go to this highly unusual, donor-supported special unit: one of their twelve-meter-wide miniature aircraft is said to have played a decisive role in the sinking of the Russian battlecruiser Moskva. And: In the first weeks of the invasion, the Aerorozvidka unit was able to stop the 64-kilometer Russian convoy that was supposed to attack the capital Kyiv.
“We’re all soldiers now, but our roots are in other areas of work,” Mykhailo, Aerorozvidka’s board member and head of communications, told Business Insider. “Some of us have PhDs. Some have master’s degrees. Some come from the IT industry and many other sectors. What unites us is the desire to win this war.”
After Putin annexed Crimea in 2014 and the two regions of Luhansk and Donetsk declared their independence, volunteers banded together for the first time to support the Ukrainian military with drone reconnaissance. The founder of Aerorozvidka is Volodymyr Kochetkov-Sukach – an investment banker and father of four. In 2015 he was killed in an operation in the Donbass.
The most expensive drone is the Oktokopter R-18, which is being completely redesigned by the team. Each build costs $20,000. However, this is still cheaper than anti-tank missiles like the NLAW, which cost $40,000 each. And that’s not their only advantage.
The R-18, unlike the NLAWs, can also be used multiple times – as long as it is not damaged by Russian fire. Its range is four kilometers and the flight time is 40 minutes. It can drop five-pound bombs.
The drones are used for reconnaissance or combat 20 hours a day.
Military drones are also used, and this is where diversity is increasing. The arsenal includes Chinese DJI drones and Autel drones, French Parrot drones, the Turkish-made Baykar Bayraktar TB2 combat drone, the Vector drone Quantum Systems from Germany, and US Switchblade drones.
The elite force conducts around 300 reconnaissance missions a day and has destroyed “dozens, possibly hundreds” of Russian emergency vehicles, according to its spokesman Mykhailo. At night, the thermal imaging cameras of the drones are an advantage. That’s why Aerorozvidka mostly carries out its missions in the dark.
The Aerorozvidka unit consists of the drone team, the delta team and a cybersecurity team. Delta is a web-based situational awareness system that maps Russian attack targets. It relies on various sources of information, including reconnaissance flights by the drone team. The unit benefits from Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system, which ensures a secure connection in the event of internet or power outages.
The non-governmental organization relies on crowdfunding and donations. That’s not the only challenge. Much of the troops’ equipment is subject to strict export controls. Therefore, according to the “Guardian”, the drone builders are dependent on a network of friends and supporters. They buy the parts abroad and send them to Ukraine by post.
The 30 IT experts are now also receiving support from the Ukrainian army and the Ministry of Digital Affairs due to their successes. However, the majority of the entire operation of the unit is still financed by donations.