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Ukrainian nonprofit Come Back Alive has collected ammunition, rifle stands and radios to help the country's soldiers fight Russia's invasion. Last week week, it also delivered items more commonly used to pep up YouTube videos than fight a war: 24 DJI Mavic 3 drones.
"Our drones are our eyes," said one Ukrainian military officer who's worked with drones since 2015 and spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons. The Ukrainian military has no official drone unit, the officer said, but soldiers and civilians use them to see what's in the next village or along the next kilometer of road. "If Russian artillery is preparing to strike, we can shift civilians. ... It's a possibility to make a preventive strike and to save Ukrainian people."
From commercial quadcopters to fixed-wing military models, drones have proved important to Ukraine, giving its outgunned defense better chances against the huge Russian military. Early in the war, a civilian drone team called Aerorozvidka worked with military units to help Ukraine stall a convoy of armored vehicles headed toward Kyiv, the country's capital. During a nighttime ambush, the unmanned aircraft dropped small explosives on the lead vehicles, which along with mines caused a pileup. The team also helped Ukraine repel Russia's initial attempt to seize the airport near Kyiv.
Unmanned aircraft have been used in warfare as far back as 1849. Japan sent balloon bombs over the Pacific Ocean to the US during World War II. The term "drone" became mainstream when General Atomics' hulking MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones caught on in US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By 2011, the US military had 11,000 of the big, expensive systems.
Rarely, however, have drones played the role they're taking on in the asymmetric war between Ukraine's low-budget forces and Russia's gargantuan military. Miniaturization has improved the cost, flight time and range of commercial drones, while Ukrainians have used military drones successfully against Russian armored vehicles that can cost millions of dollars.
Drones are rewriting the rules of war.
"The tank was key at one point," said John Parachini, a Rand Corp. military researcher. "Now drones may be the more decisive weapons system."
Though commercial drones are useful mostly for reconnaissance, Ukraine's fleet of military drones has proved important to delivering the actual attack. The large Turkish built Bayraktar TB2 has been used to destroy Russian resupply vehicles and surface-to-air missile launchers. One Ukrainian company, UA Dynamics, makes the low-profile surveillance drone called Punisher that can carry a 4-pound bomb.
The US Defense Department has AeroVironment said it has donated to Ukraine more than 100 Quantix drones, reconnaissance models that take off vertically like a quadcopter but then level off and fly faster with a fixed-wing design to survey for up to 45 minutes per battery charge., a "loitering munition" model that can circle a battlefield then become a missile aimed at a target. And on Tuesday,
Ukrainians are using about 1,000 drones in the war effort, the military officer estimated. Many are mere "toys," he said, "but we have what we have."
Sales of military drones are expected to increase about 7% per year, to $18 billion in 2026 up from $13 billion in 2021, according to Business Research Company.
US drone makers get involved with Ukraine
Other US drone makers are delivering drones to Ukraine for humanitarian or noncombat uses:
- Draganfly has sold 10 drones and donated three more for delivering blood, vaccines, antibiotics, insulin and other medical products that must be refrigerated. Partners for that work include Coldchain Delivery Systems and Revived Soldiers Ukraine. Some are being fitted with lidar and magnetometer sensors to detect landmines, too. Draganfly plans to send 200 drones by August, said CEO Cameron Chell.
- Aquiline Drones has donated 40 of its $3,000 Spartacus Hurricane drones to Ukraine for inspections, search and rescue, and sending relief items like medication and water, said CEO Barry Alexander. With a boost from donations, it hopes to send 1,000 of the drones to Ukraine.
- , has donated dozens of drones and training worth about $300,000 in total to support humanitarian and relief efforts in Ukraine, said CEO Adam Bry.
Though Skydio focuses on commercial uses, it also sells drones to the US Army for surveillance.
"If you're taking fire, the first thing you do is take cover and understand where the fire is coming from," said Chuck McGraw, who leads Skydio's federal sales and deployed drones as a Navy SEAL in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. "You can pop up a drone in 60 seconds or less and put eyes on the threat."
Drones meet counter drones
The Russians have their own drones and air defense systems for counteracting Ukrainian drones. Ukrainian photos show that Russians have the same DJI Mavic 3 drones Ukraine is using. But when it comes to Russian military drones, careful accounting in the open-source intelligence movement has shown significant losses, with 26 downed or captured Russian drones so far.
"The Russians are a little behind in this game, and the Ukrainians have proved extremely inventive," Rand's Parachini said.
The drone advantage in Ukraine isn't permanent, as militaries add new abilities to destroy drones or jam the radio transmissions they rely on. And though Russian air defense systems apparently didn't work as well as expected in Ukraine, militaries are investing in counter-drone technology, Parachini said.
Drones are dangerous to use in war, the Ukrainian officer added. Enemy forces can fire on operators when they see a drone take off and can use DJI's AeroScope technology to locate drones.
"In Ukrainian we have a joke: Every time we have a new mouse, someone will construct a new mouse catcher," the officer said.
DJI didn't respond to a request for comment but tweeted in response to Ukrainian criticism that military use of its drones is "inappropriate."
Expect the technological escalation to continue. One likely development is developing swarms of many interlinked drones that collectively will be harder to track and completely foil.
"You swarm 5,000 drones at $2,000 each into an area," said Draganfly's Chell. "How do you stop it?"
AeroVironment military drones head to Ukraine
Drones can occupy a middle ground between human piloted aircraft and missiles. AeroVironment's Switchblade 300 and 600 models are "loitering missiles" that unfold their wings like a pocket knife with a lot of blades and can stay airborne until a targeting system tells them where to go.
The 300 weighs 5.5 pounds, fits into a backpack and is launched from a compact tube. It can fly for 15 minutes – covering more than 6 miles – before colliding into its target. The 50-pound Switchblade 600 is designed for more serious targets like armored vehicles. It can fly up to 25 miles and loiter for 40 minutes.
AeroVironment also sells the Puma line of reconnaissance drones that can stay aloft for as long as six and a half hours. After being launched with a throw, catapult or truck, they can be used to spot targets and transfer coordinates wirelessly to Switchblades for an attack.
"A two-person team with a Switchblade drone can be miles away and take out a $50 million piece of equipment with five people in it," said Michael Robbins, head of government affairs for a US industry group called the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.
The US military began by sending 100 Switchblades to Ukraine in late March as part of an $800 million military aid package, then announced a further $300 million package on April 1 that includes both Pumas and Switchblades.
The Pentagon declined to comment on which models, but the latter package includes Switchblade 600s, according to Bloomberg. AeroVironment declined to comment for this story.
AeroVironment's fixed-wing Quantix Recon drones fly faster than conventional quadcopters and can survey more than a half square mile of area in a 45-minute flight. AeroVironment is helping with training to use the drones, too, and the US military is delivering them.
"This donation will provide operators with a tool that can fly undetected by enemy forces and unaffected by radio frequency jammers to deliver accurate and rapid reconnaissance of remote, inaccessible areas," AeroVironment CEO Wahid Nawabi said in a statement.
One advantage of fixed-wing drones is they fly faster and are therefore much harder to shoot down than quadcopters, the Ukrainian officer said.
The Turkish Bayraktar TB2, with a 40-foot wingspan, can navigate without GPS and carry laser-guided munitions. They cost about $1 million each, Robbins said.
"The Bayraktar TB2 has been used to fairly devastating effect against ground forces," Robbins said. "It's become a rallying cry in Ukraine."
"Russian bandits are made into ghosts by Bayraktar," says a translation of the lyrics.