Ukraine is strapping rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) to cheap racing drones and using them to attack the Russian frontlines. It’s an effective method of gathering intel, destroying expensive equipment, and controlling the battlefield that represents a fundamental shift in how wars are fought.
In the last few weeks, photos of the makeshift loitering munitions have circulated on Russian and Ukrainian Telegram channels. Footage pulled from the drones that show the attacks has landed on Reddit.
So-called FPV drones are typically used by hobbyists for drone races. The idea is that the user straps a pair of goggles to their face that’s connected to a camera on the drone. The controller then has a first-person view (FPV) from the drone.
In photos of the drones pulled from Telegram, some are using pieces sold by FlyMod, a Ukrainian racing drone company based in Odessa. Unlike a pre-built DJI or other commercial drone, FPV racing drones tend to be pieced together by the racers. Hobbyists are constantly adjusting weight, trying different cameras, and futzing with copters to achieve the optimal lift and speed.
FlyMod did not return Motherboard’s request for comment.
The war in Ukraine is far from the first battlefield to see the use of cheap hobbyist and off-the-shelf drones to deliver explosives. The Islamic State pioneered the use of commercial drones that dropped grenades, including the popular DJI Phantom. Ukrainian forces were already using similar tactics in 2018 in Donetsk.
The financial incentives are impossible to ignore, and has made retrofitted quadcopters ubiquitous. The Bayraktar, the Turkish drone Ukraine immortalized with a folk song, costs about $5 million per unit. A DJI Mavic runs at just over $2,000., while a Skydio 2 is about $1,000. A custom-built racing drone using hobbyist parts could cost even less.
Ukraine has been using them to devastating effect. On Telegram, a Russian soldier shared the experience of constantly dodging quadcopter drones.
“The adversary constantly conducted reconnaissance using commercial UAVs—sometimes up to 6 ‘birds’ hung over the village at a given time. During the day they used ordinary quadcopters, and at night the ones with thermal imaging cameras. In a short time they managed to locate the defense nodes and personnel movement patterns. When the recon was completed, the Ukrainians shot at several trails and intersections,” the Telegram post said, according to a translation from drone expertSamuel Bendett.
Bendett studies drones and military robots for the Center for a New American Security think tank. According to the Telegram post, Ukraine used the drones to monitor the Russian position and harass them the moment they tried to move. “Our infantry unit reached the targeted area and immediately came under mortar fire—sometimes Ukrainians also included copters that dropped grenades in such attacks,” the translated Telegram post said.
The drone harassment was apparently so effective that it prevented water deliveries for several days. “For an hour and a half we were monitored by a quadcopter with a thermal camera and they hit us with a mortar. This feeling is not pleasant,” the post said. “I analyzed the situation for a long time and realized that the main damaging factor in this tactic is fear. Movement is life. Especially in the war. As soon as you are deprived of movement, you experience difficulties with transportation and the evacuation of the wounded, the countdown timer immediately starts. It is important here not even to kill the enemy, but to scare him so that he is afraid to move.”
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