The Ukraine war is driving rapid innovation in drone technology

Tim Mak is an independent war correspondent in Ukraine. Reporting from a war zone has traditionally required the backing of a large media organization. But for the past year Tim has done something extraordinary: relying on readers of his Substack, The Counteroffensive, to cover the substantial costs of on-the-ground reporting in Ukraine. This article is republished from The Counteroffensive; if you enjoy it, subscribe to Tim’s newsletter.

There’s no place in the world where drone innovation is happening faster than in Ukraine.

The drone war has been an equalizer in the mismatched war of aggression by Russia. With fewer funds and fewer soldiers, Ukraine has needed to out-think and out-innovate the Russian military. And nowhere is that more evident than in drone technology, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the full-scale invasion just over two years ago.

“It would be fair to say that Ukraine has done a great amount of work in the drone area by using the cheapest parts for drones to develop the most effective weapons,” said Alexander Chernyavskiy, the head of the Ukrainian charity fund Free in Spirit. “The U.S. creates the most advanced drones in the world… in Ukraine, we don’t have [many] resources to buy such expensive drones.”

Alexander Chernyavskiy (right) and his colleague Ivan Kazachuk (left) stand in the offices of their organization, Free in Spirit. 

Since the full-scale war Ukrainian engineers and laypeople have been developing new inventions in the field of drone improvements, counter-drone technology, artificial technology, electronic warfare, and drone-based mine clearance.

Chernyavskiy’s charity began in 2022 to provide help to both civilians and the military. They quickly specialized the demand in drone development, and built a factory to “meet their soldiers’ needs”: flying drones, land drones, bombers, kamikaze, rescue, mining and demining. 

“Drones have totally changed this war,” he said. “Right now drones have the same role, the same significance as [the] artillery shell — [which traditionally has been known as] the ‘King of Battle.’”

Startup drone manufacturers are pooling together frames from Poland, antennas from Canada, and flight controllers from Ukraine. Other components come in from China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia. Whatever else they need, they make themselves with 3D-printers.

Here’s one thought experiment that Chernyavskiy outlines: he estimates that it would take 200 artillery shells to destroy a large building. And even with that massive amount of ordnance expended, there’s no guarantee that the enemy force will be destroyed. 

But with a drone, which before the war was essentially just a toy to take wedding movies, “you can find an enemy soldier, the place where he is situated, and take a better angle to attack him,” he said.

A person involved in drone manufacturing in Ukraine, who asked not to be named for fear of being targeted,  told us that newly-purchased foreign-made drones are arriving in-country, but are already outdated by the time they arrive due to the frantic pace of innovation on the battlefield. 

The drone war has already gone through multiple phases.

Bayraktars, the Turkish-made drones, were purchased by Ukrainians at $5 million apiece at the beginning of the war, and were used to great effect in the defense of Kyiv. But within a couple months, Russians understood the need to cover their troop movements with air defense, and the large Bayraktars became easy targets. 

A serviceman of the Armed Forces of Ukraine holds FPV drones in his hands on May 2, 2024 in Lviv, Ukraine. Volunteers handed over 700 FPV drones to the military. (Photo by Stanislav Ivanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

This was the first major drone adaptation by Russian forces. Now, the success of small FPV drones has now meant that Russians are trying to jam them. 

“Right now we have a game with the enemy. We are making drones with communications that can go through the jamming barrier… you have to find new frequencies that don’t cross with the jammer’s frequencies,” Chernyavskiy said.

Ukraine is now using frequency-hopping modems to defeat Russian jammers trying to block Ukrainian pilots from being able to control their drones – a constant game of one-upmanship where both sides are desperately trying to outcompete with newer designs.

The pace of constant development is dizzying. But it is often paid for in the price of blood.

“We have a lot of talented people,” Chernyavskiy said. “Engineers understand that it’s an existential threat so they focus their attention on drones, jammers — instead of thinking about a ‘peaceful business direction.’”

Ukrainian innovators aren’t just motivated by deadlines, or the company’ stock price. 

They’ve specialized in this field because if they don’t pioneer new technologies, people die.

In a series of three undisclosed bomb shelters, since converted to drone manufacturing assembly lines, Mykhailo – he asked for his surname to be omitted due to security reasons – produces thousands of drones per month.

Already, he has developed new tweaks to existing drones, renovating them to extend their range on the battlefield. While ordinary drones of this class have a range of five to seven kilometers, they’ve renovated them so they can fly up to 22 kilometers.

A Ukrainian soldier operates a drone during training for the 22nd Brigade in Donetsk Oblast, on May 3 2024. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu via Getty Images)

Necessity is the mother of invention, and the cobbled-together FPV – or First Person View – drones are a response to Ukraine’s smaller pool of resources. Some of the commercially-produced Chinese-made drones can cost $4,500. But his versions are just $450.

And cost is one of the main advantages of drone production in the ongoing David-and-Goliath fighting taking place in eastern and southern Ukraine right now. For just $450, a drone can destroy or disable Russian vehicles that cost millions of dollars.

He doesn’t want to take me on-site, but he shows me a live video feed of the assembly process taking place. It’s a nondescript, office style layout – the way a mailroom might look. Each worker finishes his or her task, then moves it on to the next worker – a non-automated, handmade process.

Mykhailo stands for a photograph after an interview with The Counteroffensive in Kyiv.

Six days a week – they take Sunday off – his team of 36 employees can produce an average of 360 drones per day. But although they have a manufacturing capacity of 10,000 drones a month, they’re producing just 3,000. 

The Ukrainian government doesn’t pre-pay for orders, leaving manufacturers to come up with the capital to produce their drones. Without more funds, they’re unable to make more than a few thousand a month. This lack of upfront money is a problem, Mykhailo said. 

“Russians are also developing [drone technology] themselves. Maybe in half a year they will develop more in drones than we do,” he said. “That’s why we need more money to invest in this.”

Ukraine is making drones with all sorts of novel technologies, like a self-guidance system that doesn’t require visual control of a pilot; thermal cameras to conduct surveillance and night; and even artificial intelligence that can recognize enemy tanks from afar.

The thought of giving autonomous drones the power to kill – making decisions without a human “in the loop” – may be a terrifying thought.

“It’s less terrifying than the alternative, which is infantry fighting against armor without the appropriate long-range anti-tank systems; infantry fighting against an enemy that’s five times larger,” said Francisco Serra-Martins, the CEO of Terminal Autonomy.

His company is focused on developing autonomous drones so that these systems can operate without pilots. Serra-Martins imagines a future where war is mostly machines killing other machines. 

The website for Serra-Martins’ company, Terminal Autonomy.

The groundwork for this is being laid now in Ukraine: swarms of drones are being developed such that they can fly to a designated “kill box,” find and identify enemy tanks, then destroy them – all without any human pilot interaction.

One of the major advantages of this sort of drone technology is that it is immune from current forms of jamming. The Russian military will try to prevent communication between Ukrainian pilots and their drones – so to circumvent that, autonomous drones will operate without any communication with a pilot.

There are only a few dozen autonomous drone manufacturers in the world. Probably half of them are in Ukraine, Serra-Martins said, adding that Israel has a few, and America has some. 

“The war is like a crucible. So it forces innovation, it forces rapid prototyping, deployment – the cycle is shortened,” he said. “Either we create solutions that basically enable us to fight more effectively against that adversary that’s five times larger. Or we do nothing and, perhaps, see them developing [it].”

Serra-Martins said that taking out the human element will actually make friendly fire or civilian casualties far less common. 

“When it’s classifying something, there’s a degree of confidence that is better than a human. A human who is eating rations for months without sleep, and getting hit by artillery is going to be less precise than a machine that doesn’t have emotions, doesn’t sleep and isn’t exhausted,” he said. “If anything, it becomes a safer alternative than using human operators.”

Of course, there are new legal and moral questions that arise from giving drones the power to kill. But the CEO of this company points out there is a cost to not developing the technology. And in any case, this push to innovate — and defeat the invading enemy — has pushed off those questions for now. 

“For us to sit and pause and reflect on autonomous drones is counterproductive…  we are facing an adversary that doesn’t have rules. They don’t ponder, ‘should we invade other countries?’ They don’t reflect on, ‘should we rape and pillage cities?’” he said. “We’ve crossed the Rubicon. We can’t sit and watch the Russians innovate in this sector.”

A woman takes aim with a KVERTUS AD G-6+ anti-drone device during a presentation on March 19, 2024 in Ukraine. (Photo by Viktor Fridshon/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Every day, both Russians and Ukrainians are quickly developing new technology in this space in ways that could change the nature of warfare forever. 

Chernyavskiy, the head of a charity focused on drone technology development, relayed one recent mission that speaks to the complexity of Ukrainian drone operations in the current day. 

The Ukrainian military conducted a joint mission with air and land drones. Land-based drones, which carry much more weight in explosive payload, worked in concert with air drones that used an antenna to boost the land drone’s signal – while also conducting surveillance ahead. 

The mission was a success: they were able to pull off the operation without losing any soldiers’ lives. 

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Tim Mak