Chinese amateur drone plays crucial role in Russian-Ukrainian war: NPR
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There is a lot of talk about the possibility of China supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. But one Chinese product is already playing a vital role on the battlefield: DJI commercial drones.
Drones cost around $2,000 or less. They are easy to fly, widely available online and in electronics stores, and are extremely popular around the world among civilians who fly drones around the park for fun.
They are also in short supply for troops on both sides of the war in Ukraine.
“Before this war, people mostly used them to play with things for experimental purposes, like, ‘Can I drop a water bottle?’ You see these videos on YouTube,” said Faine Greenwood, a Boston-based researcher. She documents the use of drones in Ukraine based largely on videos posted on social media.
“The Ukrainians, and the Russians too, have found ways to modify these devices that they have purchased online to create more and more creative ways to drop explosives from these small consumer drones,” he said. she declared.
Greenwood has reviewed more than 1,000 cases over the past year and can identify the type of drone used in half of them. China-made DJI commercial drones are by far the most popular, both for reconnaissance and for attack. They represent more than half that she was able to identify.
This is happening even though DJI announced in April 2022 that it would stop selling drones to Ukraine or Russia as they were not intended to be used for military activities.
In an email to NPR, DJI said “we have a long-standing ban on selling our products for combat purposes.”
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“We have seen reports that show how our products are transported to Russia and Ukraine from other countries, where they can be purchased commercially,” the statement added. “Like any consumer electronics company with products sold in many different electronics stores, we cannot influence how all of our products are used once they leave our control.”
DJI drones are easy to buy – just check out the many options on Amazon – and are widely regarded as the most popular consumer drones in the world. No other drone manufacturer has been able to match DJI in terms of quality, price, ease of use and global distribution, according to Greenwood and others who closely monitor the drone market.
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“When most Americans think of drone warfare, the image that comes to mind is the global war on terrorism, which consisted of sophisticated, expensive, military-grade capabilities used to strike, especially on high value targets,” Kelly said. Grieco, who followed the air war for the Stimson Center in Washington.”
The reality is quite different in Ukraine, where drones are everywhere and traditional military aircraft, including fighter jets, are relatively rare.
“What we’re seeing is a market for commercial drones has emerged. They’re very useful for providing eyes on a battlefield,” she said.
DJI drones are not made for shooting with weapons. But they can be easily modified to carry a grenade or other small explosive, which can be dropped with great precision into trenches full of troops, or directly into the open top of a tank.
Ukrainian troops started using these drones early on and post videos of the attacks daily on Twitter, Telegram and other social media sites. In turn, these videos help Ukrainian aid groups raise funds to buy more drones.
“Ukraine has been very successful in creating a strategic narrative to really maintain Western support,” Grieco said. “Part of that shows they’re a viable adversary, that they have guts, and a lot of that is communicated with these drone videos.”
At the start of the war, Russia tried – and failed – to establish air superiority with its combat aircraft. Now this is a cheaper option.
Russia uses Iranian-made Shahed military drones to carry out attacks and often turns to DJI drones for surveillance.
While DJI drones are constantly in the skies over Ukraine, they have limitations, mostly related to their battery life.
They only travel about five miles. They stay in the air for less than an hour. They can only carry a light explosive, such as a grenade. And they are vulnerable to enemy attack, said Andrey Liscovitch, who heads the Ukraine Defense Fund, a private group that helps the military.
“The downside to these drones is that they can be shot from the sky with guns,” Liscovitch said. “When they do these weapon drops, they’re not very high, maybe 70 to 100 meters. At that distance you can use an AK-47 to hit it if you’re a good shooter.”
Liscovitch was born in Ukraine. He has a doctorate from Harvard and was an executive at Uber in California. When Russia invaded last year, he dropped everything to form his band.
He is working with Western tech companies to develop drones that can fly further and stay in the air longer. The objective is a real-time view of the battlefield for long-range Ukrainian artillery fired at Russian positions.
Another big challenge is developing systems that cannot be electronically jammed by Russia, says Liscovitch, who spoke to NPR by phone from the eastern city of Zaporizhizhia.
“So we have to constantly play this arms race game with the enemy,” he said.
Yet drones are already doing things that are hard to imagine – until they happen.
Recently, a Russian fighter surrendered to a Ukrainian drone, which filmed the surrender. The Ukrainians posted the video, along with instructions on how other Russians could do the same. It’s part of a project they call “I want to live”.
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent for NPR. follow him @gregmyre1.