The makeshift production unit takes orders from front-line commanders as the conflict of electronic warfare heats up
13 December 2022
In a secret location, somewhere in Ukraine, fresh-faced engineering students, some still in their teens, are working day and night to build drones for the front line. On work benches piled with sometimes donated and scavenged components, they modify commercial drones to turn them into weapons of war, or build their own designs from scratch. This makeshift production line is only one of many that have sprung up since Russian forces invaded Ukraine, and it has already produced 2,500 unmanned aircraft for the front, estimates its founder, Maxim Sheremet. “Our brains are our rifles,” he told The Telegraph. “Most engineers in my lab are students. They are not even 18 years old. They fight on the rear lines, they fight using their brains. They are trying to do something. Creating drones is a very important part of the drone war.”
The nine-months-long war has unleashed a flurry of grassroots innovation on the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian techies, academics, hobbyists and entrepreneurs have joined forces with the military to try to give troops an edge against Russian forces. They are re-purposing and modifying consumer technology, as well as building their own from scratch.
This cottage industry resembles agile techie start-up culture, much more than the costly and long-running industrial weapons programmes that arm conventional forces in the West.
Mr Sheremet’s Dronelab takes orders from commanders on the front line, to build reconnaissance and bomber drones. Some engineers fashion bomb bays to carry grenades on small commercially available drones. Others are making a line of surveillance drones, complete with thermal cameras, that allow front-line units to keep an eye on Russian forces and spot targets even at night. Some of his biggest designs can carry a payload as high as 8kg. He says: “Guys with guns come to my lab and say, ‘Hey Maxim, we need drones that fly a certain distance’. I say, ‘Okay, let’s do it’.”
The lab employs around 100 student engineers, and as many as 60 can be working at any one time, wielding soldering irons, poring over 3D printers and fitting circuit boards. Batteries salvaged from e-cigarettes power the smallest craft. Engineers sometimes get to see the fruits of their work, in clips of battlefield video showing their drones dropping grenades on Russian positions. “It’s a special kind of pleasure when I see this,” admitted one young worker.
Ukraine’s engineers are in a constant arms race with their Russian opponents, who use electronic warfare to jam, block or scramble the drones. “2022 is a conflict of electronic warfare,” says Mr Sheremet. “Interference is the biggest problem in the drone war. “
Flying drones is one example of Ukrainian ingenuity, but the approach has also seen a fleet of exploding naval drones dispatched to attack Russian shipping in Crimea.
The maritime drones are thought to have been propelled by modified jet ski engines. The audacious attack in late October was described by one military expert as “a glimpse into the future of naval warfare”.
Yevhen, a drone operator with another volunteer group called Aerorozvidka, was a remote-control enthusiast long before he was called up to fight in 2015 following Russia’s attempt to annex the Donetsk region. Arriving on the front line with badly-equipped Ukrainian forces, he was quick to see drones’ potential. He said: “When I first got to the front, everything was archaic, drones were hardly used then. Reconnaissance had to be done independently. To adjust the artillery, they climbed trees and looked.” Commanders soon saw the benefits of an eye-in-the-sky and adaptation moved on to dropping bombs. He said: “I thought that if I was already flying over them and if I had a bomb that I could drop, it would be good.”
Engineers and military analysts say the key to Ukraine’s success has been the flexibility to adapt and get quick feedback from the front line. While the formal Ukrainian military can still be bureaucratic and conservative, individual commanders, particularly at the front line, are often willing to experiment and those higher up can turn a blind eye to restrictions.
Commanders and volunteer battalions approached renowned drone makers for help to overcome specific battlefield problems, he said. They gave briefs about what they wanted, and they very quickly reported back on what did and did not work. “The military command takes certain risks and turns a blind eye to some things in order to get a result, because everyone is focused on victory and understands that we cannot win if we fight without innovations,” said Yevhen. “It is very important that we modernise all the time, quickly identify weak points and immediately look for solutions for improvement. “It takes a couple of weeks to find and implement new solutions, given that we have constant combat testing of our devices, we have the ability to work on it quickly.”
Russia is formidable at using electronic warfare to bring drones down, he said. Yet its forces do not appear to be adapting as fast as the Ukrainian side, he said. “I think because they are less motivated. We have motivation at all levels. Various people come to us offering their help, engineers, entrepreneurs, etc.”
Yehven says he dreams that one day the Ukrainian forces could have access to the big missile-carrying Reaper drones used by the Royal Air Force and the US. But ultimately, he thinks drone warfare is heading to smaller, cheaper drones, not larger. “I think that there will be more drones in service, for example, land-based drones for mining and de-mining are currently being tested. “Globally, I think that the trend is towards cheaper and mass production. For example, if you have 10 very expensive and good drones, and the opponent has 1,000, but cheap and of worse quality, then the victory is most likely for the one who has more of them.”
Small drones were widely used and adapted in the Syrian war, but the evolution of this new kind of warfare has stepped up a gear in Ukraine. The drone contest over Ukraine is being keenly watched by international military experts.
Ukraine’s use of cheap, adaptable drones has important lessons for Britain’s forces and their own fleet of costly, specialised unmanned aircraft, a recent think tank report suggested.
The Ministry of Defence, following in the footsteps of the Pentagon, has in recent decades concentrated on building a fleet of multi-million pound drones operated by small numbers of highly-specialised pilots. Strict civil aviation safety regulations make testing and developing new drones, or even just training with them, a lengthy and bureaucratic process.
Their use now needs to be broadened out much more widely across all branches of the military, the Royal United Services institute said. Troops need large numbers of cheap and dispensable drones they can use themselves for reconnaissance and finding targets. Cheaper, smaller, commercially available technology that can be weaponised in the hands of less wealthy nations and non-state groups will be a major trend in 21st century warfare, said Mike Martin, a senior war studies fellow at King’s College London.
He said: “US forces in Syria, for instance, are regularly attacked with tiny suicide drones, and the Ukrainians are buying quadcopters from Amazon and modifying them to drop bombs on Russian forces. “This, more than anything else, will change how and who we fight in the coming wars.”