POKROSKE, Ukraine — A private in the Ukrainian military revealed the rotors of a general hobby drone and, with practice, attached a grenade to a device that can drop objects and was designed for commercial drone delivery.
After takeoff, the private, Bohdan Mazulenko, who goes by the nickname Raccoon, sits casually on the rim of a ditch, as lush fields with artillery craters on his tablet scroll.
“Now we will try to find them,” he said of the Russians.
For years, the United States has deployed drones in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Turkish drones played a decisive role in the 2020 fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
But these were large, expensive weapons. In contrast, Ukraine has adapted a wide range of small craft, from quadro-copters with four rotors, to medium-sized fixed-wing drones, to drop bombs and use artillery targets.
Ukraine still uses advanced military drones supplied by its allies for observation and attack, but the bulk of its drone fleet along the front lines are off-the-shelf products or manufactured by hand in workshops around Ukraine. Drop customized grenades or anti-tank munitions on a myriad of inexpensive, plastic crafts.
It is part of a booming corner of innovation by the Ukrainian military, which has occupied Drone warfare to counter Russia’s advantage in artillery and tanks. The makeshift workshop experiments with 3D printed materials, and Ukrainian coders have created a workaround for the electronic countermeasures that Russians use to track radio signals. The fixed-wing Punisher, a high-end military drone manufactured in Ukraine, can strike from more than 30 miles away.
Ukraine has long embraced drone warfare to try to gain a technological edge as it fought as an underdog against Russian-backed separatists in the war in the country’s east. Before Russia’s invasion in February, Ukraine’s military purchased the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone, the deadliest pilotless craft in the country’s arsenal. In a sign of appreciation, a Ukrainian woman named her child Bayraktar.
In a bit of innovative marketing that also makes some money, the Ukrainian company making Punisher drones allows people to pay around $30 to send a written message on the bombs. Yevgen Bulatsev, founder of UA Dynamics, a company that donates drones to the military, said the move caused public anger at Russia.
Among the more popular messages, he said, are the names of friends killed, hometowns lost in occupation, or people’s own names with a note written “Hello From”.
“Many people want to express difficult feelings,” he said. “It’s a good thing. It helps people psychologically.”
Following Russia’s invasion, the United States and European allies donated strike and observation drones to Ukraine, including the Switchblade, an American warship that hovered over a battlefield until a tank or other target appeared. does not give in, then dives down to blow him up.
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In the fields and tree lines of eastern Ukraine, drones have become ubiquitous on the Ukrainian side of, say soldiers, Russia’s arsenal of pilotless craft. Drones have almost completely replaced reconnaissance patrols and are used daily to drop warheads.
Ukrainians call drones buzzing back and forth on no-man’s-land “mosquitoes”. And more recently, in a position dug into a tree line of oaks and acacias on a summer afternoon, a drone strike was the only military action other than distant artillery fire.
“You don’t always find personnel, but you can hit trenches or equipment,” said Private Mazulenko as he sent a drone to find a target. The battery lets it hover for about 10 minutes.
Private Majulenko’s controller beeped. Russian electronic countermeasures jammed the drone’s signal. On autopilot, the drone tried to fly back to the Ukrainian position. Private regained control and sent it again towards the Russian lines.
“Come on, raccoon, leave it,” urged Private Mazulenko’s comrades, looking at the screen over his shoulder.
The radio burst from another Ukrainian situation that heard the echo, and Private Mazulenko’s group radioed back not to worry – it’s “our mosquito”.
A Russian trench appeared. But the signal went down again. Out of battery, he directed the drone back, caught it in the air with one hand, then pulled the detonator off the grenade. Such flights are repeated several times a day.
“Only with technology can we win,” said Yuri Bereza, commander of the Dnipro-1 unit in the Ukrainian National Guard, whose troops run a small bomb-making workshop for drones at their frontline base.
Drones are an important bright spot for the Ukrainian military. Russia has an effective observation drone, the Orlan-10, which is used to direct artillery fire at Ukrainian targets, but no effective, long-range strike drone similar to the Bayraktar – a major military power A notable shortcoming. Ukrainian soldiers say Russian soldiers also fly consumer drones, but there are fewer of them.
The Russian military instead relies on blunt force, deploys legacy heavy weapons such as artillery and tanks, and has been less nimble in adopting consumer technology on the battlefield. It also lacks the influx of small commercial drones donated by non-government groups and even relatives and friends of soldiers that have been doused Ukrainian frontline units.
Despite Private Mazulenko’s steady hand, rigging a hobby drone to drop explosives is a nerve-racking task.
Security features need to be destroyed in order to prepare the grenade to detonate at its target. On the most common type of grenade used by Ukrainian drone operators, three safety devices, including a small metal plate that protects the firing pin from accidentally hitting the primer, are ejected and thrown. This is done in workshops with a hacksaw and pliers.
There have been accidents, said Taras Chyorny, a drone armorer working in Kyiv, recalling colleagues who lost fingers while handling grenades. He has experimented with various temporary detonators and sculpted the shape of a nose cone on a nail cast in Play-Doh. Downside: The grenade can explode if dropped while handling.
“It’s better to do it in a quiet environment,” he said of the teasing.
The end result is a black tube resembling a thick cigar. Glue on Ukrainian aerodynamic wings—sometimes made from a 3-D printer—that causes the grenade to shoot straight down, improving accuracy. At the front, pilots like Private Mazulenko hand and rub grenades before each flight.
The grenade is carried on a commercial accessory designed to drop objects such as water balloons or small packages for drone delivery. The drop is activated by pressing a button to turn on the drone’s landing light.
Small adaptations to tactics, the design of explosives, flight patterns and launch and recovery have all improved over the past five months, according to a commander in an Azov unit that flies drones, which used the nickname Botsman.
“There’s a boom in experimentation,” he said. With the risk of drone buzzing over their position at any moment, he said, Russian soldiers, “can’t eat and sleep. They make mistakes because of the stress.”
One of the large workshops in Kyiv, called Dronenia, takes orders online from military officials seeking customized drones, some large enough to drop 18-pound bombs. The group is financed by crowdfunding donations. Other workshops have closed pots to raise money.
Ukrainian authorities are taking advantage of drones. The country’s deputy minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, hosted a presentation in Kyiv last week of what he called an “army of drones,” showcasing an array of donated crafts.
This included the Fly Eye3, a state-of-the-art reconnaissance drone donated by a Polish special operations team, and a variety of hobby drones donated by people around the world willing to support Ukraine, including children. Everyone will be sent to the front to fight the Russians, Mr. Fedorov said.
Frontline Care, a non-governmental group, came up with the idea to sell messages on six-pound bombs dropped by Punisher drones. A website allows customers to pay by credit card and enter a message.
Svitlana, an office manager who did not wish to reveal her last name for security reasons, heard about the website through a friend. Customers can donate as much as they want for the message, but the minimum is 1,000 hryvnia, or about $25. Svitlana paid with her Visa card to write “For unborn children” on the bomb.
She was furious, she said, about the war hindering her plans to have children with her husband, who is now serving as a soldier. In addition, Russian troops occupied his hometown in northern Ukraine.
“It’s really personal for me,” she said. “I never thought that I would sponsor a weapon. I truly believe that democracy and peace can give us a better life. But now I understand that without weapons we cannot defend our country.
Yuri Shyvala contributed reporting from Pokrovske and Maria Varennikova and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv.