On the outskirts of Kyiv, troops are in training to be the tip of the spear in Ukraine’s drive to modernise its tactical response on the front lines of the war with Russia, through a significant expansion of its drone fleet.
Ukraine’s military does not have an official drone unit but the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has made it possible for Kyiv to conduct reconnaissance along the 2,470-kilometre (1,535-mile) front line, spotting Russian forces and equipment and remotely directing artillery fire against targets.
Drones save Ukrainian lives, but they are expensive and in short supply.
“Nowadays, it’s very important to have a drone in each battle unit because this is our eyes in the sky,” said Lieutenant Anton Galyashinskiy, a Ukrainian army expert in visual data analytics.
Galyashinskiy and nine of his fellow soldiers are learning to pilot drones from a moving vehicle. They are being trained by Global Drones Academy, a private company run by Anton Veklenko, who has been operating unmanned flying machines since 2015.
“One of the most important aspects of training is the safety of using civilian drones in a combat zone,” Veklenko told AFP.
A specialist in drone photography, Veklenko expanded into military training after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, teaching civilians and military how to become remote drone pilots for the war effort, and how not to become targets of Russian fire.
“At the beginning of the war, many of our servicemen died because they did not know that they were being watched [while using drones],” he said.
“We have developed a method of how not to reveal your position.”
‘Army of Drones’
Both sides in the war have already been using smaller radio-controlled drones but Kyiv has said Russian electronic countermeasures that jam their communications systems are becoming increasingly effective.
Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy launched an “Army of Drones” appeal for private cash to buy a fleet of military-grade UAVs from countries around the world.
Ukrainians and overseas supporters have already raised about 13.5 million euros ($13.5m) which will go towards an initial 200 military-grade machines equipped with state-of-the-art thermographic cameras, GPS and mapping software.
“The key thing is that they are hard to spot, which means they are hard to get knocked down,” the appeal said on the website.
“These drones will help constantly monitor the front line and identify the aggressor’s positions.”
Yury Shchygol, head of Ukraine’s cybersecurity and intelligence service, told reporters this week that procurement teams already had a contract with Polish manufacturers and had sourced four tactical drones. They are investigating possible deals in Israel, Japan, Portugal and the United States, he added.
Zelenskyy is also appealing for “dronations” – gifts of smaller consumer drones – to be donated directly in Ukraine or to warehouses in the US and Poland, for onward shipment to the front lines.
Hobbyists and commercial drone pilots have already started donating their machines but Ukraine is setting its sights much higher.
“We have received 30 drones within the ‘donate your drone’ programme, both from Ukrainians and from abroad. Our goal is to collect 1,000 civilian drones,” Shchygol said.
The drive has taken on a new urgency this week, with US officials warning of Russian plans to acquire hundreds of combat drones from Iran.
Learning to operate civilian drones takes two weeks, Shchygol said, while pilots of military-grade reconnaissance drones will get a month of training.
But he believes the “Army of Drones” effort will bring dividends beyond the conflict with Russia.
“Elon Musk said himself a couple of days ago that the wars of the future will be decided by drones,” he said.