Jan 24, 2023
While allies hesitate over donations of multi-million dollar Leopard tanks and other major hardware, Ukrainian soldiers on the front line are fighting the Russians on a shoestring budget, even assembling their own home-made drone bomber. The miniature warbird seems to be held together with duct tape but is a combat veteran. “It worked well in the Kharkiv direction and the Belgorod region of Russia. Its plus is cheapness, it’s really made of foam plastic, mounting foam and Chinese spare parts,” according to text accompanying a video on Telegram (found by analyst Abraxas Spa) showing soldiers of the Sonechko (“Sunshine”) unit assembling improvised fragmentation bombs for it.
This volunteer reconnaissance battalion started as one of many self-organized militias in 2014, and although now integrated into the Ukrainian army, self-reliance is still important. That includes creating their own airpower, making a drone from what they call “s**t and sticks” — a corruption of “matchsticks and acorns,” a popular expression from Soviet children’s books about making toys from found materials. This is just one of many such home-made drones.
Samuel Bendett, an expert Russian drones and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS, told me that in addition to flying commercial quadcopters, both sides are building drones. “Russia has a lot of volunteer efforts building small quadcopters and other small UAVs,” says Bendett. “For example, there was a recent state media article praising soldiers for putting together their own ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] quadcopter. Compared to the overall Ukrainian effort, Russian efforts are probably still smaller in scale and some of these efforts started later than their Ukrainian counterparts.”
You can make a drone airframe from just about anything — a video from Yemen shows one made of sticks from the narcotic qat plant. What matters are the electronics, now available at bargain-basement prices.
The key components are the flight controller (the computer which directs the drone), camera and communications, plus electric motors and propellers, all of which are easily acquired from drone hobby suppliers. Russian social media showed how with an analysis of a captured Ukrainian anti-tank drone translated by Dronesec. The body is a simple plastic frame with a Foxeer Razer video camera, costing about $14, a Diatone Mamba MK4 flight controller ($44) and a Lollipop 4 antenna ($20). The total cost of the components was put at about $200. Although much less capable than even a cheap DJI quadcopter, with a little work it can be assembled for half the cost.
This improvised drone was armed with a 1.3 kilo RKG-3 anti-tank grenade, a type which has been highly successful as a drone bomb against Russian vehicles. For a few hundred dollars the grenade becomes a guided anti-tank weapon with a range measured in kilometers, able to find targets dug in or hidden by buildings or trees, with high accuracy.
The Sonechko team may have different targets in mind. The video shows them assembling fragmentation bombs by packing plastic explosive into pipes and wrapping a layer of ball bearings around them with plastic film and tape. Such bombs are highly effective anti-personnel weapons, and, like the drone, cheaply made. They are significantly larger and more powerful than the ubiquitous small Vog-17 grenades used elsewhere as drone bombs. The Sonechko drone is a fixed-wing aircraft rather than a multicopter, which suggests greater range and payload. Being fixed-wing may make precise bombing less accurate as it cannot hover directly over a target to take aim, but one of the great strengths of these drones is that they are expendable and can be flow again and again, and easily replaced if lost. That makes them ideal for a war of attrition against an entrenched enemy.
Russian commentators are calling for mass drone building too. Bendett points out a Russian Telegram discussion on this calling in addition for high-end military drones “made literally from ‘s**t and sticks,’ i.e. as cheap as possible, as simple as possible, strong, and with a decent payload capacity.” Bendett says that some Russian sources claim they are now able to use more and more Russian parts in simple drones and that their reliance on China is falling, but these claims are yet to be proven. “There is also a growing effort across Russia, with regional governments like Sakhalin supporting and funding both drone training for the mobilized troops, and large-scale drone building efforts,” says Bendett.
Electronic warfare has a significant impact on drone operations, and commercial hardware operating on known frequencies is especially vulnerable to jamming. But DJI and Autel drones as well as homebuilt varieties still seem to operate effectively. “There is still a major need for a short-range tactical drones, and therefore drone building and acquisition efforts on both sides will continue for the duration of this conflict,” says Bendett.
What started as a conflict of the newest high-end military equipment may end up being won by the side with the greatest ability to jury-rig small combat drones in quantity. And, as Bendett notes, judging from their online discussions, Russia may be at a disadvantage due to inefficient procurement systems. “Good things at the front often appear not because of, but in spite of the cumbersome system,” says one disgusted Russian Telegram poster quoted by Bendett.
David Hambling – Author of ‘Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world,’ following cutting-edge military technology in general and robotic systems in particular. New time-travel adventure ‘City of Sorcerers’ out now in paperback and Kindle.