Drones have been an important part of Ukraine’s David-versus-Goliath resistance against the Russian attackers, and while there have been many episodes of small, sometimes civilian drones attacking Russian tanks (and other vehicles), few are as striking as the halt of the infamous “40 mile long convoy.”
The convoy was targeted by Aerorozvidka, a non-governmental air reconnaissance unit that works with the Ukrainian army but relies heavily on students, academics, and electronics hobbyists using their own equipment and connections. The unit deploys drones to patrol the Ukrainian border, look for signs of Russian vulnerability, and sometimes, coordinate or even carry out attacks.
Aerorozvidka was founded in May 2014 by a team that included a Ukrainian battalion commander, but the branch was severely underfunded and bears more similarities to an active DIY group rather than an organized military structure. Nevertheless, Aerorozvidka has proved to be extremely effective at helping the Ukraine military target Russian forces, especially during the night, when they are immobile.
A part of this is also supported by Elon Musk’s Starlink fleet, which was sent to Ukraine following a Twitter exchange between the magnate and a Ukrainian official.
The Times reports that Aerorozvidka runs around 300 scouting missions each day, while attacks are mostly carried out at night when the drones are almost impossible to see with the naked eye — but the drones, equipped with thermal cameras, can “see” just fine.
But coordinating these drones (and different teams) is challenging, especially in remote areas where internet access is lacking. This is where Starlink comes in.
As we previously reported, Starlink’s satellite technology is costly to deploy, but it can provide a much-needed internet source for people who live in remote, rural, or disrupted areas. The technology, which can also serve as a backup in the case of a natural or man-made disaster, was put to great use by some of Ukraine’s drone operators.
Funny enough, this started as a Twitter conversation between Ukrainian Vice Prim Minister Mykhailo Fedorov and Elon Musk. While Musk has a history of promising spectacular things and not delivering, this time, it seems Musk has actually stepped up and is making a significant difference in Ukraine.
It’s not clear how many Starlink terminals have been shipped to Ukraine or how many civilians have access to it, but The Telegraph reports that at least 100,000 people in the country are using the connection, and the Starlink App has become one of the most popular in the country. But the satellites, whose declared aim is purely civilian, are increasingly showing use in military applications.
Starlink can be particularly useful for military operations in areas where infrastructure is lacking or imperfect and where internet coverage is subpar — which means a lot of the areas where fighting is happening. An officer with the Aerorozvidka unit described how they are using the system:
“We use Starlink equipment and connect the drone team with our artillery team,” he said. “If we use a drone with thermal vision at night, the drone must connect through Starlink to the artillery guy and create target acquisition.”
The story of Starlink in Ukraine, and indeed all of Aerorozvidka, is a motivational but also a cautionary one. It’s remarkable that what is mostly a team of drone enthusiasts coming from diverse backgrounds, and funded mostly by crowdfunding efforts, can make such a big effort in defending their country. Bit by bit, Aerorozvidka members have deployed sensors to monitor the country’s borders and gather intelligence, but they’ve also adapted simple commercial drones to drop explosives on enemy units — and some have even made their own missiles.
Members of the ragtag group have become unlikely heroes, prime examples of Ukraine’s stunning resistance. Their efforts are also showing just how much this type technology can be adapted and tweaked for various applications. But there are fears that similar approaches could be used in other situations, for nefarious purposes.
The times, as they say, are a-changing. Many are watching the war in Ukraine and drawing careful lessons from what’s happening. We can only hope the lessons they draw will be applied to better the world, and not for more war.