A tale of how Ukraine’s fledgling army turned to the consumer market and made drones an invaluable asset in the war against separatists backed by Russia.
Soaring over battlefields in Eastern Ukraine, homemade and professional drones monitor enemy movement and scope out checkpoint locations.
Three years ago, as Russian annexation of Crimea grew closer, Ukraine’s unmanned aerial forces lagged behind the weaponary of separatist forces.
Ukraine’s military were depending on Soviet-era Tu-143 ‘Flight’ drones, only capable of taking still images which had to be developed afterward. Inevitably, the separatists easily shot these down.
The national defence budget was $500 million, but with one quarter of that sum vanishing into the depths of political corruption, and high-end drones costing $130 million, the investment wasn’t stretching far enough.
At this point, the people of Ukraine got creative; Crowdfunding initiatives such as The People’s Project encouraged donations of hardware, including consumer drones, for military use.
While consumer drones were vulnerable to jamming and suffered short battery lives, the ball was well and truly rolling.
By late 2014, an innovative startup was founded, named UKRSPECSYSTEMS. The crowdfunded company began building drones from scratch, using commercial components.
Their first successful design was the PD-1, standing for ‘People’s Drone’, an unmanned aircraft with a 10ft wingspan. With a six hour battery life and 18 mile flight distance, this drone revolutionised the conflict by providing eyes on the frontline.
An influx of drone designs followed, including the Stork-100, Rama, Apus 1505 and Spectator, designed by students of Ukraine’s Kiev Polytechnic Institute.
While reports state that over 30 different drones have been created and used, the A1-CM Furia (Fury) stood above the rest. Designed by startup Athlone Air, the story of this drone is particularly inspiring.
The company began working on consumer drones long before the war, but completely changed direction upon realising their nation was in desperate need.
Powered by electricity, the Fury has a 7ft wingspan and two hour flight time. Most notably however are its surveillance abilities; from 500m away, the camera can zoom and maintain clarity in order to distinguish whether individuals are carrying guns.
Costing between $10,000 and $22,000, Fury’s are affordable and effective – they have become a vital asset to a struggling military.
Dissatisfied with drones merely capable of surveillance, a state-run design programme has unveiled a drone able to ‘engage targets with onboard weapons’.
Nicknamed ‘Turtle Dove’, these unmanned aerial forces will be enormous, with wing spans of 20ft. Sources have stated that the Turtle Dove could be in the Ukrainian military arsenal by late 2017.
Two other drones soon to be added to Ukraine weaponary are the Warmate and Scimitar. Both are shot from a tube and then unfold their wings, cruising in search of targets before making a kamikaze dive and delivering an explosive charge.
Although the system of acquiring drones is chaotic, the Ukrainian military now has an arsenal resembling a modern day drone force.
Urgent demand for these weapons over the past three years has seen techies and investors come together in a historic and unified fight against separatists.
It seems the rapid evolution of consumer backed combat-drones in Ukraine is reflective of the capabilities of a nation when left with no other choice.