Two days after the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine, Ukraine’s Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov asked Elon Musk to bring the Starlink internet service to Ukraine. The request came as Ukraine continues to suffer from internet and power outages during the invasion. Ten hours later, Musk responded in a tweet, saying, “The Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals on the way.”
But unknown to many, these Starlink satellites not only provide much-needed internet access for the people of Ukraine, but also help the Ukrainian Armed Forces rule the skies. Using DIY aerial reconnaissance drones demonstrates the power of using drones in 21st century warfare.
This emerges from a report by the British news agency The week, a group of experienced Ukrainian drone pilots called Aerorozvidka (aerial reconnaissance) are tasked with helping slow the Russian advance. The Aerorozvidka project is an example of what some would call a wartime startup.
Founded in May 2014 by Natan Chazin, a Ukrainian battalion commander, and three other men, the Aerorozvidka Group has since grown to a team of over 20 people, forming a special tactical unit equipped with armored and bulletproof transports. The group currently has 66 drones running on the two most popular software platforms – either NAZA or Pixhawk, developed by 3D Robotics (now maintained by the Linux Foundation).
The drones began as garage-built drones that were later “dismembered and reconfigured” for intelligence-gathering missions. In addition to the drones, the Aerorozvidka Group has also produced its own missiles. So far, the group has used these drones to destroy three Russian tanks.
Unlike expensive drones used by the Russian military, the group uses relatively inexpensive and effective Turkish-made TB2 UAVs to conduct airstrikes on tanks, supply trucks and other targets.
The Starlink satellites help keep drones connected to their bases. The Aerorozvidka unit operates its drones over the Starlink network. The group uses Aerorozvidka drones to provide intelligence and attack Russian drones and attack Russian tanks using the newly available Starlink system, which improves internet and connection speeds.
“Russian forces stand still when night falls,” a member of the group told The Times, another British publication. “Your fear of Ukrainian shelling [is] forcing them to hide their tanks in villages between houses, knowing that conventional artillery cannot risk hitting civilians.”
A Ukrainian drone pilot also told the Times that the drones cannot be seen at night and can approach targets without causing collateral damage.
“Keeping UAVs aloft is a growing challenge for Ukraine’s drone warriors. The Russian-backed militias have access to the latest and most advanced signal jamming and GPS spoofing technologies from vendors like Moscow-based Radio-Electronic Technologies Corporation or KRET, and expensive truck-based anti-aircraft systems like Krasuha 2.
The most advanced UAV to come from the Ukrainian side since the beginning of the conflict is called PD-1 by Developer Igor Korolenko. It has a wingspan of almost 10 feet, a flight time of five hours, carries electro-optical and infrared sensors, and a video camera that broadcasts on a 128-bit encrypted channel. The most important feature is the autopilot software that allows the drone to return home in case the connection to the global positioning system is disrupted or lost.
Intelligence gathering by drones is often presented as risk-free compared to manned aircraft or human intelligence gathering, but, Korolenko says, if the drone isn’t secure or the signature is too obvious, the human cost can be very, very high.
“Sometimes Russian military track locations from ground control stations,” he wrote to Defense One in an email. “As such, UAV squads must follow certain safety procedures – relocate frequently, deploy antennas, work from a shelter, etc. As far as I know, Two members of UAV squads were killed before mortar attacks afterwards [their] Positions were tracked by Russian electronic warfare equipment.”
Korolenko has either designed or modified several UAVs to aid in the war effort. He’s part of a volunteer group called People’s Project, a kind of tech incubation lab based mostly in Kyiv. With its sleek website and project-based focus, it has a lot in common with your average Silicon Valley startup, but instead of producing e-commerce apps, they’re building gear to get to the top as quickly as possible. He describes the business model as “somehow Crowdfunding during the warKickstarters for conflicts.”