How Ukrainian civilians use small drones to wage war

How Ukrainian civilians use small drones to wage war

In the snow-covered streets of Trostyanets, a city in northern Ukraine, a Russian missile system fires rockets every second. On the sides of the artillery system, positioned between the houses and near the railways of the city, there are tanks and military vehicles. Suspended a few tens of meters higher, a Ukrainian drone records the attack. This is not a sophisticated military device, but a small commercial drone that anyone can buy.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in late February, both sides of the conflict have been using drones of all shapes and sizes. On the one hand, there are large military drones that can be used for aerial surveillance and for attacking targets on the ground. On the other hand, small commercial drones that can be piloted by people without specific training and transported in a box the size of a suitcase. Although both types of drones have been used in past conflicts, the current spread of small commercial drones in Ukraine is unprecedented.

An unprecedented use WiredLeaks, how to send us an anonymous report Drone footage shared and published on social media they portray the brutality of war and reveal what happens during battles. Drones have resumed fighting in the devastated city of Bucha, where rows of tanks are seen moving through the streets, flanked by soldiers. Commercial drones helped reporters document the devastation in Kiev and Mariupol, flying over buildings that were burned and reduced to rubble.

Russian troops were shot shooting Ukrainian citizens who had surrendered. Drone videos show Ukrainian soldiers bombing Russian positions, monitoring their movements in real time and ambushing enemy troops. In a video shot by a drone, Russian military vehicles are seen abandoning soldiers, who are seen running after the convoy and falling into the snow. In another video, the drone films a helicopter that is shot down in flight.

“Drones have changed the war - explains Valerii Iakovenko, founder of the Ukrainian drone company DroneUa -. They are used for intelligence operations, to collect and transfer data on the movements or positions of enemy troops, to correct artillery fire, for counter-sabotage actions and, of course, search and rescue ". Iakovenko estimates that Ukrainian forces are employing more than six thousand drones for reconnaissance and says the devices are able to connect to Starlink, Elon Musk's satellite system, to upload footage. "For intelligence units, drones came to the center of attention in 2014, but their range [then, ed.] Cannot be compared to what we see today," he adds (Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in 2014, with the annexation of Crimea).

Both Ukraine and Russia used military drones during the war, while the United States sent drones to Ukraine. These military drones are often capable of flying at high altitudes for extended periods and hitting military targets, such as ships. However, according to the researchers, the widespread use of smaller commercial drones stands out. In some cases these drones, which can sometimes prove fragile and are unable to move away from operators or remain in the air for long periods, have provided tactical advantages (commercial drones have already been used in past conflicts, for example in Syria , albeit not so extensively).

A Ukrainian soldier next to a downed Russian drone in northwest Kiev on March 22, 2022.

ARIS MESSINIS / Getty Images Faine Greenwood , a civilian drone researcher, has tracked and recorded nearly 350 commercial drone incidents in Ukraine, videos of which have been shared on Twitter, Telegram, YouTube and other social media. Many of the films, of which Greenwood also recorded the location, were filmed by the military, but in other cases the perpetrators are civilians and journalists. Documented incidents probably represent only a small fraction of drone use in Ukraine. Iakovenko says that in addition to gathering evidence of possible war crimes, drones are being used to inspect affected buildings and to help restore electricity supply when it is damaged or taken out of use.

"[I commercial drones, ed.] guarantee low-cost aerial surveillance, or even attack capabilities, "says Ulrike Franke, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who studies the use of drones in warfare. The drones allow ground troops to monitor the soldiers around them in real time, re-orient their weapons and take actions that could stop the enemy advance or save lives: "There are individuals or small militias that everything they suddenly find themselves with aerial surveillance capabilities, a technology that we would not have had ten years ago. This has undoubtedly led to advances and victories at the tactical level. "

In addition to ensuring direct surveillance that can contributing to intelligence activities, video recorded by commercial drones could play a role even after the end of the war: "This is one of the first cases that we have drones that have collected a huge amount of usable information for war crimes investigations against civilians, "Greenwood explains. While it is unclear what types of footage will be eligible in the trials, Greenwood and others are saving the videos made by drones in Ukraine.

Dji's drones and the risks to operators The most used commercial drones in Ukraine are those made by the Chinese company Dji, in particular the Mavic line. Commercial drones from DJI are considered to be among the easiest to purchase and use. The devices have been used by both Ukrainian and Russian forces, Greenwood reports. At the start of the war, Ukrainian authorities accused DJI of allowing Russian forces to use the detection system of his drones to target their own troops; the company strongly rejects the accusation, supporting which no solid evidence has been presented.

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Arrow At the end of April, DJI announced that it would temporarily suspend sales in Russia and the Ukraine. The company has always said it does not market its products for military use, and has refused to make changes that would allow these types of applications.

Despite the opposition of DJI, the company's drones were used as weapons during the war. "I don't think DJI's commercial drones were expected to be used on this scale - says Samuel Bendett, a consultant with the non-profit organization CNA, which deals with autonomous military systems -. This leads us to ask whether the proliferation of drones in a conflict can be stopped altogether. " Charities, companies and individuals from all over the world have donated commercial drones to Ukrainian forces (Greenwood says there are those who claim that drones have also been donated to the Russian military).

Despite their use in conflicts is not new, commercial drones are not designed for a hostile environment: "The downside to these drones is that they are not military-grade," explains Bendett, noting how the devices can be knocked out of action by anti-technology. -drone.

"Flying a simple commercial drone in a conflict also endangers operators," explains Bendett. Civilians, journalists and aid workers using drones in Ukraine are at greater risk when using commercial drones, adds Greenwood: "The big problem with commercial drones and conflict zones that aid workers are aware of is that it is not. possible to distinguish them [from military ones, ed.] ". It is unclear what humanitarian laws provide in the event that drone operators are targeted, explains Greenwood: “What happens if a humanitarian worker using a drone is mistaken for a fighter and then killed? ”

This article originally appeared on UK.

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