Small drones give Ukraine an unprecedented advantage

Petro Zadorozhny | Getty Images

In the snowy streets of the city of Trostyanets in northern Ukraine, the Russian missile system fires rockets every second. Tanks and military vehicles are parked on either side of the blasting artillery system, positioned between houses and close to the city’s rail system. The weapon doesn’t work on its own, however. Hovering dozens of meters above him and recording the assault is a Ukrainian drone. The drone is not a sophisticated military system, but a small commercial machine that anyone can buy.

Since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine in late February, drones of all shapes and sizes have been used by both sides in the conflict. At one end of the scale are large military drones that can be used for aerial surveillance and to attack ground targets. In contrast, small commercial drones can be flown by people without specific training and carried in a suitcase-sized box. Although both types of drones have been used in previous conflicts, the current scale of small commercial drone use in Ukraine is unprecedented.

Drone videos shared and posted on social media depict the brutality of war and reveal what happened during the battles. Drones captured fighting in the destroyed the Ukrainian town of Bucha, with lines of tanks moving through the streets and troops moving alongside them. Commercial drones have helped journalists document the extent of the destruction in Kyiv and Mariupolflying over burnt buildings reduced to rubble.

Russian troops reportedly filmed shoot citizens holding their hands up. Drone videos show Ukrainian troops bombarding Russian positions, monitoring their movements in real time, and ambush of Russian troops. In a video, a drone spots Russian military vehicles leaving behind troops – they run after transport and fall in the snow. In another, the drone hovers in the air and records a helicopter being shot down on the way.

“Drones have changed the way war was meant to be,” says Valerii Yakovenko, the founder of Ukrainian drone company DroneUA. “It is about intelligence, collection and transfer of data on the movements or positioning of enemy troops, correction of artillery fire. These are counter-saboteur actions, and of course they are search and rescue operations. Yakovenko estimates that Ukrainian forces operate more than 6,000 drones for reconnaissance and claims that these can connect to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite systems to upload images. “In 2014, drones became the focus of intelligence units, but their scale cannot compare to what we see today,” he says. (Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in 2014 with its annexation of Crimea.)

Both Ukraine and Russia used military drones during the war, and Ukraine received drone donations from the United States. These military drones can often fly at high altitudes for long periods of time and fire at targets, including ships. However, the use of smaller commercial drones in such large numbers stands out, according to the researchers. These drones, which can sometimes be fragile and cannot fly far from their operators or stay in the air for long periods of time, have provided tactical advantages in some cases. (Commercial drones have been used in previous conflicts, for example in Syria, but not as widely as in Ukraine.)

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