December 17, 2023
Commentators have long asked where Ukraine’s reply is to the Iranian-made Shahed drones used by Russia . Now a new type of long-range strike drone from Ukraine is starting to hit Russian forces. New images from Ukraine show attacks being launched with new AQ-400 Scythe kamikaze drones made by Terminal Autonomy; the makers confirm that they have carried out strikes but cannot comment on details.
The company, formerly One Way Aerospace, was founded by a multinational team and already mass produces loitering munitions for Ukraine. The company’s vision is to democratize airpower with large numbers of low-cost, mass-produced attributable autonomy. Under a new contract, they are now delivering Scythe drones – currently starting at 50 a month but scaling up rapidly to around 500 a month by Q2 2024. “Our goal is to produce 1,000 units monthly,” cofounder Francisco Serra-Martins told Forbes. “But it is not realistic to scale in just one quarter.”
Cheap, Numerous And Deadly
Terminal Autonomy describes their AQ-400 Scythe as a “no frills, cost effective payload delivery system.” The compact design has two sets of wings, one forward and one rear, which provide maximum lift for minimum wingspan and enable 30 fully-assembled Scythes to be stacked in one shipping container for transport.
The drone’s body is made of milled sheets of plywood from a network of furniture factories, which the makers say is more scalable for mass production than 3D printing or using materials such as fiberglass. It is designed to be produced without skilled labor so that volume can be easily ramped up without lengthy technical training.
The Scythe has a range of around 750-900 km, depending on the engine option; Serra-Martins says they can use a variety of engines derived from commercial designs, some made in Ukraine and others imported. This is enough to put a huge swathe of Russia within range, plus all of occupied Crimea. The Scythe has a cruising speed of around 140 kph / 85 mph – similar to the Shahed, with a maximum terminal speed of 200 kph / 125 mph.
The Scythe carries a 42-kilo warhead, again similar to the Shahed. Francisco Serra-Martins says a standard payload is a Ukrainian mass-manufactured high thermobaric warhead or a pair of 122mm artillery rounds that spray shrapnel over a wide area. Still, there are other options for specific targets.
Both sides have made extensive use of radio-frequency jamming to block the use of GPS and other satellite navigation systems. Shaheds have often managed to find their targets, though, with a combination of jam-resistant antennas and inertial navigation. The Scythe can take a similar approach using a laser altimeter from Lightware to fly at a very low level – around 30
meters/100 feet. Jamming is only effective over line-of-sight, so low-flying drones are difficult to jam and are only affected when they are very close to the jammer.
But the preferred mode now is to come from high-altitude. “We have moved to fly at 3000m [10,000 feet], so any air defense missiles that shoot down cost more than the system,” says Serra-Martins. “Only on terminal dive will it approach at a lower altitude. The altimeter is used for airbursting and avoiding terrain.” Scythe can navigate in this mode with a visual positioning system using roads and other visible landmarks, so radio jamming has no effect. As an optional extra, Scythe can also have a video link to the operator, turning it into a giant FPV kamikaze, able to pick out and attack moving targets with high precision. This is only possible within radio range though and adds to the cost, so most Scythes will attack pre-programmed coordinates: command centers, fuel and ammunition dumps, air defense installations, airfields, and other high-value targets.
A Drone For Mass Attack
The Scythe is a modular, flexible system with payload bays that can be easily modified for different missions. It can take off under its own power along a runway or a road, or it can take off (like the Shahed) with a rocket booster where there is no flat surface — or from a ship. It can also be launched from a small catapult. As Serra-Martins notes, mass is the key, and the drones are only effective in large numbers. Slow-moving drones are relatively easy targets, but the Shaheds have inflicted so much damage on Ukraine because although 80% or more are shot down, many get through. A sufficiently large package of drones will overwhelm defenses, and over the long term, attacks will exhaust supplies of surface-air missiles.
The basic Scythe airframe costs around $15k; this rises to around $30k with guidance and other extras. Serra-Martins says that the overall cost can be reduced with leader-follower swarms: a lead drone with sophisticated guidance is accompanied by nine low-cost, basic drones that follow its lead to the target area. These can saturate defenses at a lower cost than using the sophisticated version.
Russia has started its winter assault on Ukraine’s power grid for the second year running. The effects will depend largely on just how many Shaheds Russia can produce or import. It remains to be seen exactly what targets Ukraine will attack with its new arsenal of Scythes, but again the effects will depend heavily on just how many they can turn out.
David Hambling is a freelance science and technology journalist and author based in South London. His non-fiction books include Weapons Grade, Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world and We: Robot. His Lovecraftian science fiction includes the popular Harry Stubbs series set in 1920s South London, and his time-travel adventure City of Sorcerers will be out in 2022.