What Estonian drone companies are learning from Ukraine

TALLINN, Estonia—Just three years ago, Estonia’s drone start-ups pitched their cutting-edge tech as a tool to fight fires and plant trees. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed all that. 

Now, Estonian companies are re-focusing on military uses for their drones and taking cues from Ukraine’s active frontline. 

“Once the war in Ukraine started, we just put all these different [commercial] developments aside,” said Raul Rikk, capability development director at drone vehicle manufacturer Milrem. 

The small Baltic nation has heavily backed Ukraine’s defense, in part due to memories of its own traumatic Soviet occupation, and its 211 mile border with Russia. 

From January 2022 to April 2024, Estonia gave more aid to Ukraine as a percentage of gross domestic product than any other country, except Denmark. Estonian civil society also mobilized to support Ukraine. Estonia’s 1.3 million citizens have fundraised hundreds of thousands of euros to buy gear for Ukraine’s crowdfunded army. 

Alongside wagon-loads of weapons, a number of Estonian companies have gotten involved in helping Ukraine, including Milrem, quadcopter producer Krattworks, and others

Milrem got its start in 2013, offering robotic vehicles about half the size of a car. While some versions were sold for commercial use, the company also offered a military version meant to help soldiers lug heavy supplies on marches. Prior to Ukraine, the vehicles had seen combat in counter-terrorism fights, including Estonia’s mission to Mali. 

In December 2022, Germany announced it would pay to send 14 of Milrem’s THeMIS vehicles to Ukraine, with packages designed for evacuating wounded soldiers and route clearance. 

Ukraine’s military was soon sending a stream of feedback to the company, said Rikk. “Even the guy who was operating [the drone]” sent feedback at first, he said. 

While largely happy with the vehicle, Rikk said operators also requested changes to make the THeMIS better suited to the modern, large-scale nature of the war. 

For one, Ukraine wanted more ballistic protection for the medical vehicles—a necessity given that Russia fires as many as 10,000 shells a day and shows little compunction for shooting at medical vehicles. 

Ukraine also requested better night vision capabilities so the machines could operate at night, when it’s easier to hide soldiers from the watchful cameras of Russia’s many drones and loitering munitions. 

Yet another request was counter-jamming technology. Russia frequently uses electronic warfare devices, which have felled many U.S. precision weapons sent to Ukraine. 

THeMIS’s autonomous navigation is helpful in navigating while jammed, said Rikk, as it allows the vehicle to plow on even without a signal from its operators. But it’s no easy task. Autonomous UGVs have to determine which bodies of water can be forded and which can’t, as well as which obstacles it can push through. 

The complexity of the software means that, while Russia has reportedly capture a THeMIS, they’re unlikely to learn much about the system quickly, Rikk said. “It’s quite complicated, it’s not very easy to replicate it,” he said. 

In a small office in Tallinn strewn with drone parts, Estonian drone company co-founder Tõnis Voitka can sympathize with the flood of feedback Milrem has had to manage from its Ukrainian partners. 

“When they write to you at 2am, you have to be ready to answer them,” he said. “We have to face the truth—they are at war, we’re not.” 

But the support earns dividends, he added, with Ukrainian units providing help to the drone makers in return. 

The product development cycle in Ukraine can be as fast as 24 hours, Voitka said, thanks to a combination of changing Russian electronic warfare and Ukrainian drone units eager for feedback. To incentivize cooperation, Krattworks also offers its Ghost Dragon reconnaissance quadcopter to Ukrainian units at a reduced cost. 

The drones Krattworks sent to Ukraine initially had a slate of unexpected problems due  to assumptions about how drone operations would work. Russian jamming was a worry, and product design was another—one early drone failed to perform because of overheating, Voitka said. 

After multiple trips to Ukraine to talk to operators and test the drones against electronic warfare, the drones are now working well, he said. They also now integrate with Ukraine’s homegrown Kropyva battle mapping software, as well with the tactical awareness kit software (TAK), used by the U.S. military. 

The company hopes to soon announce a collaboration with one of Ukraine’s many drone schools, which will provide training and basic maintenance, Voitka said. The company is also working on a short-range loitering munition project designed to make operators more “efficient,” he added. 

Other adjustments reflect changing geopolitics. Thanks in part to tacit Chinese support for Russia, the company is looking to replace made-in-China components in case they ever lose access, Voitka said.

Both companies emphasized an interest in non-Ukraine sales—but Milrem’s Rikk cautioned that many militaries aren’t quite ready to go all-in on robotics just yet. 

Riik said he’s seen progress in how militaries think about robotics since a mid-2010 boom in interest. “They have lowered their ambition to just get something really tangible,” he said.  

But armies have a lot to decide before they start fielding the many autonomous vehicles seen in Ukraine, starting with how they incorporate them into their doctrine, logistics, and maintenance, he said. 

“Everyone understands, we don’t need to send people onto battlefields,” said Rikk. “The question is, what is the next step?” 

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Sam Skove