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Ukrainian drone enthusiasts pitch in to fend off Russian forces

“Kiev needs you and your drone in this moment of fury!” read a Facebook post late last week from the Ukrainian military, calling on citizens to donate recreational drones and volunteer as experienced pilots to operate them.

An entrepreneur who runs a retail store selling consumer drones in the capital said his entire stock of some 300 drones made by Chinese company DJI had been dispersed for the cause. Others are working to smuggle more drones across the border through friends and colleagues in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.

“Why are we doing this? We have no other choice. This is our land, our home,” said Denys Sushko, chief operating officer of Kyiv-based industrial drone technology company DroneUA, which before the war was helping provide drone services to farmers and energy companies.

Sushko fled his home late last week after his family had to take cover from a nearby explosion. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone and text on Friday after climbing a tree for better reception.

Unlike the much larger Turkish combat drones that Ukraine has in its arsenal, standard consumer drones aren’t very useful as weapons, but they can be powerful reconnaissance tools. Civilians used aerial cameras to track Russian convoys, then relay the images and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops. Some machines have night vision and heat sensors.

But there’s a downside: DJI, the leading provider of consumer drones in Ukraine and around the world, can easily locate an inexperienced drone operator, and no one really knows what the Chinese company might do with that data. This makes some volunteers uncomfortable. DJI declined to discuss specifics of how it responded to the war.

“DJI manufactures its products entirely for civilian use, and we deplore any use of our products to cause harm,” company spokesman Adam Lisberg said by email. “However, just like manufacturers of vans or mobile phones, we are not in a position to control how they are ultimately used.

Taras Troiak, a DJI drone dealer who launched the Kyiv retail store, said DJI had sent mixed signals about whether it was offering preferential access to — or disabling — its drone detection platform. AeroScope, which both parties to the conflict can potentially use to monitor each other’s flight paths and the communication links between a drone and the device controlling it. Meanwhile, Ukrainian drone experts say they are doing everything they can to teach operators how to protect their movements.

“There are a number of tricks that allow you to increase the level of security when using them,” Sushko said.

Sushko said many industry players are now trying to get more small drones – including DJI alternatives – to Ukraine from neighboring European countries. They can also be used to assist search and rescue operations.

Ukraine has a thriving community of drone experts, some of whom trained at the National Aviation University or nearby Kyiv Polytechnic University and went on to found local drone and robotics startups.

“They have this cottage industry and all these smart people building drones,” said Faine Greenwood, an American consultant on drones for civic purposes such as disaster response.

Troiak’s DJI-branded store in Kyiv, which is now closed as city residents take shelter, was a hub for this community as it runs a maintenance center and hosts training sessions and a hobby club. Even the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, once visited the store to buy a drone for one of his children, Troiak said.

A public Facebook group focused on drones run by Troiak has more than 15,000 members who have swapped tips on how to help Ukrainian troops. A drone photographer from the Ukrainian Drone Racing Association team told The Associated Press that he decided to donate his DJI Mavic drone to the military rather than try to fly it himself. He and others asked not to be named out of fear for their safety.

“The risk to civilian drone operators inside Ukraine is always great,” said Australian drone safety expert Mike Monnik. “Localization of the operator could lead to directed missile fire, given what we have seen in the fighting so far, as we have seen in previous conflicts.

Some members of Ukraine’s drone community already have experience deploying their expertise to conflict zones due to the country’s long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Monnik’s company, DroneSec, has tracked several cases over the past year where both sides in this conflict have armed small drones with explosives. One thing the Ukrainians said they learned was that small quadcopter drones, such as those sold in stores, are rarely effective at hitting a target with explosive payloads.

“It would seem somewhat myopic to waste one,” said Greenwood, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based consultant. “I guess the main goal would be recognition. But if things get desperate, who knows.

DJI also has experience responding to fighters trying to arm its drones and has used so-called “geofencing” technology to block drone movements during conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It is not yet clear whether he will do the same in Ukraine; even if it is, there are ways around it. But rival US drone company Skydio, without mentioning DJI by name, warned this week that “Russia and its allies — including China — could force tech companies under their laws to suspend operations or provide intelligence on Ukrainian forces”.

The California-based company said it hadn’t sold any products to Ukraine before, but is now considering getting some into the hands of the Ukrainian Defense Forces.

Small civilian drones are no match for Russian combat power, but will likely become increasingly important in a protracted war, leaving drone manufacturers with no opportunity to be completely neutral. Any action they take or avoid is “indirectly taking sides,” said PW Singer, a New America scholar who has written a book on war robots.

“We will see the ad hoc weaponization of these small civilian drones the same way we have seen in conflicts around the world, from Syria to Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan,” Singer said. . “Like an IED or a Molotov cocktail, they will not change the tide of battle, but they will certainly make it difficult for Russian soldiers.”


AP video reporter Nathan Ellgren contributed to this report.

ABC News

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