Drone Wars: Ukraine's Homegrown Response To 'Deadly' Chinese Detection
July 14, 2022
Any unwitting drone enthusiast who flies their quadcopter near the front
lines of the Ukraine conflict risks being immediately and accurately
targeted with a barrage of artillery.
That’s thanks to a controversial piece of Chinese technology called
AeroScope. The surveillance system is made by DJI, the world's
preeminent drone producer, and is able to detect the flight path of most
DJI-branded devices and pinpoint exactly where the drone’s operator is
DJI say AeroScope is intended only for law enforcement uses, but
Mykhaylo, a drone expert from Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka organization,
confirmed to RFE/RL that “unfortunately, examples exist” of Ukrainians
being targeted and killed by Russian users of the system.
Aerorozvidka this week marks its eighth year of operation. The Ukrainian
organization began as a group of drone enthusiasts who saw the potential
for quadcopter technology in warfare. Today, the group works closely
with the Ukrainian military and is widely viewed as a key factor in
Ukraine’s war effort. Its co-founder was killed in 2015 while on a
reconnaissance mission in the Donbas.
Mykhaylo, who asked that his surname not be used in this story, says
Aerorozvidka has had a “significant” impact on Ukraine’s war efforts,
citing the role of one team of drone operators who reportedly sped
toward the front lines around the Ukrainian capital at the opening of
the February invasion on quad bikes and used drone-dropped bombs to pick
off Russian vehicles.
“We played a very important role in the Kyiv operation,” he says.
Mykhaylo says it was largely because of AeroScope, the Chinese tracking
technology in use by Russian forces, that Aerorozvidka developed its own
drones capable of evading the DJI sensor.
A Ukrainian-made octocopter called the R18 first flew in 2019 and has
been able to destroy Russian targets worth millions of dollars by
dropping explosives weighing up to 5 kilograms. The R18’s
specifications, including a range of up to 4 kilometers, rivals the best
drones on the market and is designed for total visual stealth in
Unlike most consumer drones, the R18's designers saved weight by
deleting landing legs, meaning the drone needs to take off from a
special platform, then be “caught” midair by someone on the ground after
its mission is completed.
The R18 also differs from consumer drones in its use of thermal-imaging
cameras, which give a relatively low-resolution black-and-white image.
“The advantage is, we can fly in the night,” Mykhaylo says, when the
thermal signatures of people and machines are more distinct than during
warm summer days and the drone can't be targeted by small-arms fire.
Russian fighters, Mykhaylo says, "are afraid of our visits, but they are
even more afraid of us in the night when they have no possibility to see
our drones, only listen.”
radio-jamming devices are considered among the best in the world, and
the front lines of Ukraine are described as a constant game of cat and
mouse -- or "radio-electronic wrestling" -- between drone operators and
radio jamming specialists.
Mykhaylo says there are various "life hacks" employed by Ukrainian drone
pilots to evade detection on bombing and reconnaissance missions. He is
unwilling to discuss those tactics in detail, but some drone pilots have
talked about the importance of extremely low-level flying toward a
target to avoid detection from radar systems.
Ukraine's early start on homegrown octocopter technology appears to be a
prescient move. In March, DJI responded to complaints from a Ukrainian
government official about the use of their products by Russian soldiers
by calling the use of their drones in warfare "inappropriate." Then, in
April, the company announced it was halting sales in both Russia and
A spokesperson told Reuters that "DJI abhors any use of our drones to
cause harm, and we are temporarily suspending sales in these countries
in order to help ensure no one uses our drones in combat."