Ryan was the ‘da Vinci’ of drone building. He’s now making weapons as his inventions transform war

Speaking from his home in Alabama, the “da Vinci of drones” reflects on how he unintentionally helped build a “terrifyingly powerful” weapon over the course of a decade in racing. 

“Drone racing was always this pure thing, right?” Ryan Gury says.

“But in the back of our heads, I think we always knew that it was extremely powerful and dangerous.”

Long before Ukrainians and Russians strapped grenades to cheap consumer drones and sent them to blow up each other’s tanks, Mr Gury and other hobbyists were part of a small community that invented and fine-tuned the design for these radio-controlled flying vehicles.

The story behind the creation of the now ubiquitous cheap drone is one of innocent experiment and unintended consequences. Something built for thrills is now rewriting military doctrine.

Ukraine has used cheap commercial drones to great effect against Russian tanks.(Getty: Alexey Furman)

It’s also a tale of a civilian technology being co-opted by the military, so that now the line between the type of drones used to fight wars, and the ones used to film weddings, is hopelessly blurred.

Commercial drone pilots who might have shot nuptials have gone to work for military contractors in the Middle East.

Suburban drone retailers have become weapons exporters. 

And some drone-makers, including Mr Gury, have turned weapons builders.

‘A world of uncontrolled drone proliferation’

In October 2001, a Predator drone fired a Hellfire missile at Taliban leader Mullah Omar in Afghanistan.

This first-ever drone strike missed its target, but the “first drone age” had begun.

Predator and Reaper drones patrolled largely uncontested airspace over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. These were essentially radio-controlled planes, weighing several tonnes and costing $100 million each, using non-commercial components.

The Predator drone went from an eye in the sky to the war on terror’s weapon of choice.(Getty: Deb Smith/US Air Force)

Until the 2010s, the US and its Western allies held a monopoly over military drone technology. 

Then, two things happened. First, other countries developed their own competing drone systems, breaking the US’s tech dominance.

Second, a small community of hobbyists invented and fine-tuned what became the cheap consumer drone.

It’s these drones, along with the military ones, that are being deployed in swarms of thousands on the battlefields of Ukraine and elsewhere.

Lightweight consumer drones are far cheaper than their military counterparts.(Getty: Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images)

The world has entered a “second drone age” defined by the spread of weaponised commercial drones, says James Patton Rogers, a drone expert and war historian with Cornell University.

“We are now in a world of uncontrolled drone proliferation,” he says.

“I worry that drone atrocities will be commonplace around the world within the next decade.”

‘It’s the fastest vehicle there is’

Ryan Gury was part of this collective, iterative process that birthed the modern consumer drone.

Working in software and hardware development in New York, he stumbled upon the underground world of DIY drone-building and drone racing.

He was amazed by the precision and speed of the home-built radio-controlled flying vehicles, which could zip through the air as fast as race cars.

“I’ve never seen anything change direction so fast.”

And there was another innovation. Each drone streamed the the vision from forward-facing cameras to a pilot, who wore a wraparound display as face-hugging goggles. Known as “first person view” (FPV), this gave the pilot the experience of sitting in the drone’s cockpit.

A Ukrainian soldier of the 92nd Assault Brigade piloting a drone while wearing an FPV headset.(Getty: Denys Klymenko/Gwara Media/Global Images Ukraine)

FPV made the new drones incredibly nimble and dynamic.

“It’s the fastest vehicle there is. You can get to anywhere and do things faster than anybody else.”

Speed and agility gave FPV drones what Mr Gury calls “ownership of 3D space.”

Mr Gury and others had no idea that within less than a decade their racing toys would change how wars are fought.

“And that’s what we’re now seeing on the battlefield,” he says.

“People are using drones to put [explosives] down the hatch of a tank.”

How the cheap drone was invented

Though now commonplace, the consumer drone is a marvel of engineering and repurposing.

Many of its components were originally sourced from other consumer electronics.

At a time when the US tightly guarded its military drone technology, a global open-source community (ie they made their research publicly accessible) experimented with different designs and materials and shared their results online.

“The open-source community has delivered us a very basic small robotic weapon,” Mr Gury says.

Take, for example, a quadcopter design. It has no wings, and so relies on the thrust from its four propellers, working in concert, to stay balanced.

Smartphones were taken apart for their accelerometers and gyroscopes — the components that tell which direction is up to orient the phone display. In the quadcopter, this was used to keep it balanced.

GoPro video cameras, which had just arrived on the market, were hacked to provide the FPV live stream to the pilot.

Open-source flight-control software was posted on the web, downloaded, tweaked, and shared again, in a process of constant trial and improvement.

A timelapse image of drones with different coloured LEDs at a Drone Racing League event in London, 2017.(Getty: Steven Paston/PA Images)

As time went on, hobby drone building and drone racing became popular.

Timothy Crofts, a veteran Canberra-based drone racer, recalls the excitement as each new tech discovery “stacked” to make drones better.

Amateur drone racing groups met at abandoned warehouses and out-of-the-way parks.

“We’d create chase scenes like in Star Wars,” he says.

In 2015, Mr Gury and his drone-racing friends founded a racing league and travelled the world hosting events where pilots guided drones around a course at 130 kilometres per hour. 

Then, around 2018, the US Department of Defense called.

‘We’re making Captain America’s shield’

The US military wanted to know how Mr Gury and others were building ultra-fast FPV drones that could operate in crowded cities without dropping out of the sky due to loss of radio signal.

Oh, and it also wanted its soldiers to learn how to fly them.

Soon, Mr Gury and his colleagues were running pilot classes for US Special Operation Forces.

“And that’s when we realised there were no tools being built for Defense,” he says.

“There were these large unmanned air vehicles being made for operations in the Middle East, but this art of making small drones … never really cross-pollinated into Defense.”

The path of Mr Gury’s career typifies a broader industry-wide shift from DIY hobby to military-funded weapons development.

In 2020, he co-founded the military drone company Performance Drone Works.

Two years later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Daily videos posted online showed off-the-shelf FPV drones being used to direct artillery and drop explosives, or as cheap precision-guided missiles.

PDW has developed a heavy-lifter drone for the US military that can carry cameras or bombs.(Supplied: PDW)

In Canberra, Mr Crofts recognised the drones in the videos as the kind he and others raced in their spare time.

“It’s the same technology, but with a very different payload,” he says.

Mr Gury felt both vindicated and terrified.

“Having to explain to people for many years the promise of this and then having it on the front page of the [newspaper] was the most incredible experience and scary experience,” he says.

“We’re like, oh goodness we’re right.

“And then on other hand, oh goodness, we’re right.”

‘This is the war of drones’

Cheap weaponised drones have been deployed in other conflicts, but Ukraine is using them on an unprecedented scale, Dr Rogers says.

“It’s the first war where you’ve had FPV drones used in such a major way.”

“You can definitely argue that it transformed the fortunes of Ukraine.”

A Ukrainian soldier holding a cheap commercial drone fitted with a mortar round.(Supplied: Dnipropetrovsk Territorial Defense Brigade)

Ukrainian Anton Frolov, a travel adventure tour operator who knew how to fly FPV drones, left his family to return to Ukraine and set up a drone pilot academy.

“I took the toughest decision of my life to leave my family on the border,” he says.

“Former civilian drones became military drones.They all have to do more than they did in civilian time.”

Ukrainians scoured the world for drone supplies.

In Townsville, Zakariah Martin-Taylor noticed an uptick in Ukrainian visitors to his worldwide-delivery drone parts website, Rising Sun FPV.

A former Australian Army soldier, Mr Martin-Taylor already recognised the military value of small and cheap FPV drones.

“I saw that you could literally get cable ties and slap [a grenade] onto a drone and now you have a flying munition with pinpoint accuracy, for something that costs $700.”

Zak Martin-Taylor started the Townsville FVPR (first person view racing) club in 2017.(ABC North Queensland: Dwayne Wyles)

He sent drones and also gave the Ukrainians his advice and expertise.

“We sent one drone over, measuring 1 metre by 1 metre, to carry 82mm mortars. When it flies it sounds like a pterodactyl crossed with a [Star Wars] TIE fighter.”

As the war continued, Ukraine increasingly relied on drones to overcome Russia’s numerical advantage in troops, artillery and munitions.

Earlier this year, it was estimated workers in Ukraine built around 50,000 FPV drones a month, working from home and guided by online tutorials.

“They have people making drones in their homes and bakeries and all over the place for use on the front line and they’re just hoovering them up from wherever they can around the world,” Dr Rogers says.

Two years on from the invasion, Mr Frolov’s Kruk drone pilot training academy boasts 3,500 graduates.

“This is the war of drones,” he says.

Australian drone pilots worked for military contractor in Jordan

Ukraine’s innovative use of FPV drones has earned the attention of other countries, who were now rapidly developing their own capabilities.

In January 2023, a military contractor reached out to Australia’s commercial drone pilots, via Mr Martin-Taylor, offering teaching work in the Middle East.

The Townsville-based business owner posted the message in a group chat of fellow Australian drone pilots.

Two members raised their hands. Soon, they were in Jordan.

Ukraine loses tens of thousands of drones, like this one with a training grenade attached, every month.(Getty: Oleksii Samsonov/Global Images)

“We were there to teach people how to build and fly and operate the drones in a military manner,” one of the men, a Brisbane-based drone cinematographer, told the ABC.

“An FPV drone is a short-range guided missile which costs $500 to make as opposed to $30,000.”

The two men worked in Jordan for several months each before returning home. 

The next step: fully autonomous killer drones

Since the first Predator strike more than two decades ago, military drone technology has proliferated rapidly.

More than 130 nation-states and at least 65 “non-state actor groups” now have access to military drone systems.

In the coming “third drone age”, the technology will further improve and proliferate, so that terrorist or militant groups will use lethal autonomous drones to pursue their political objectives, Dr Rogers says.

There are already unconfirmed reports of Russia and Ukraine using lethal autonomous drones that can identify and attack targets without human input, using artificial intelligence.

“Do we need to change our way of thinking about the laws of war?” Dr Rogers asks.

“Do we need to introduce new regulations in this world of proliferated precision systems and drones? I’d say it’s certainly worth thinking about.”

In Alabama, Mr Gury is working on drones that can fly themselves.

He worries about the “terrifying” power of these future drone weapons, but it’s too late to go back.

The best defence, he says, is to build better drones.

“We’re making Captain America’s shield, or something corny like that.”

But like Dr Rogers, he knows that in this new world of advanced autonomous drones, no-one is safe.

“When VIPs are giving speeches, you can protect against a sniper.

“But there’s no protection against this.”

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James Purtill