Constant fundraisers for drones, visible in the media space, are only the tip of the iceberg called “aerial reconnaissance”. Drones are used to learn and teach to fly, they track down the enemy, and save the lives of soldiers, they are designed and refined with their own hands, and, unfortunately, they are lost.
We talked about how aerial reconnaissance works in Ukraine and what changes are needed in the industry to make it more effective, with Pavlo Harusov, an aerial reconnaissance instructor at the Boryviter school, and Rina, a combat pilot, commander of the UAV department.
How to get into aerial reconnaissance
We started flying like everyone else, on Mavics (DJI Mavic – author’s note). I was taught by a cool pilot, there were wonderful colleagues nearby – that’s why I learned quite quickly. Our territory was Donbas, Pisky, then the outskirts of Bakhmut. It seems that I know every bush around Bakhmut.
After the Mavics, there were Matrices (DJI Matrice – author’s note), and then we started learning with wings (fixed-wing drones, – author’s note). All were former civilians, many from IT, so we learned quickly. We worked with Sirko, Orlyk, Strila, Valkyria drones. I was also learning on Leleka.
Later we worked with FPV drones. We also studied ourselves, looked for drones and bought them, figured out how they work, and made ammunition. It’s good that we have a great community, everyone is sincere and shares their experiences. For this, you need to be reliable and not take information where it should not go.
If we take the total mass, pilots are trained in units. Someone who has already flown attracts the newbies. In addition, there are state training grounds, training centers, and such schools, in one of which I work. These are volunteer organizations that teach flying.
Ideally, you should study aerial reconnaissance as long as possible. However, due to the fact that people are not released from the place of service for a long time, our course, if we talk about Mavics, lasts five days. This is a basic course that gives 15-17 hours of flight time. On the good side, to have sufficient motility to control the Mavics, you need at least a hundred hours of flying.
Who becomes a UAV pilot?
It is usually easier for younger people to learn how to fly a drone. They have better-developed motor skills, they better understand how Android works. But in fact, it is decided at will. At school, we show the basics with an emphasis on what awaits on the front lines. We give certificates to those who fly normally. Those who are not very good do not get certificates. Accordingly, when there are requests from battalions, and brigades to the volunteer fund to receive a drone, and they are supported by certificates, it is better than submitting without certificates.
A modern UAV operator is not a pilot as such. This is a person who combines a lot of qualities. They have situational and tactical awareness, understand how EW works and how to counter it, know how drones fly, can technically disassemble and find out what is wrong with a drone, and can collect ammunition and safely process it. That is, they are engineers-sappers-technicians. A tactician, a strategist, and a pilot. This is a very loaded specialty, which in fact is currently the most difficult on the front.
Mistakes in using drones
There are a lot of such mistakes. Let’s take the three most common.
When a drone is brought and simply given, some may think “Well, it flies, cool, if we lose it, volunteers will get more.” They may not get it, there are already difficulties with the delivery of Mavics. On the other hand, when the military buys a drone themselves or collects funds from relatives, they value those drones. If a person was involved in the organization and acquisition of the drone, they will value it and use it carefully – and vice versa.
Lack of analysis.
When people fly, they often do not analyze exactly what and how they are doing. You can try different routes, different times, and some other things. They often don’t do that. I understand that it gets overlooked because people are so busy – but it’s important to do your job effectively.
Lack of coordination.
The army is big. In order for flights to be as efficient as possible, it is necessary for the pilot to be able to effectively convey information about what they were doing. There are often cases that guys fly, but there are problems with the transmission of information.
It is possible to lose a drone for reasons beyond the control of the pilot. You can be very cool and try very hard, but there are nuances. For the whole full-scale I lost one and broke another drone. I was very worried about this.
In fact, I always try to correctly work out the tactics of use, choose take-off points, routes and worry a lot about not losing tools, because we bought most of them with our own money. I know how much they cost, and even when this money is volunteer money, it is not money from a vacuum nowhere. People donated their earned, perhaps the last, money so that there would be means at the front. They can’t just be thrown away.
The main problem with drones is that they get lost. Sometimes due to stupidity, lack of training, sometimes due to technically difficult conditions: bad points for take-off, very powerful EW. The Russians have a crazy EW, they are much better equipped than we are in this respect. So far, they are winning from the EW side, although from the drone side, maybe we are.
The biggest problem now is communication. We used to fly without any problems, but now the drones are jammed and their efficiency is gradually decreasing. Now there is a very strong EW in, say, Bakhmut. There is no way to fly far to see something because it will be jammed. Then you either turn back or lose the drone.
Communication in aerial reconnaissance
There are many options for communication between units when some have a drone and others need information. It can work within, conditionally, one brigade, when people from different divisions conduct reconnaissance and share information. In this way, the entire brigade is aware. Another option, the most popular, is cooperation with artillery. When the infantry, or anyone else, flies, they broadcast via Starlink, and the artillery fires.
If there is no Starlink, the coordinates are transmitted by walkie-talkie. They say: “Such a goal, according to such coordinates.” “Okay, accepted.” Artillery is aimed, and pilots adjust. They keep an eye on this object and say whether they hit it or not. If it was a mistake, what coordinates were missed?
As a combat pilot, I mostly worked with reconnaissance. Reconnaissance, pre-reconnaissance, and adjustment of artillery.
In a perfect situation, we need to work together, unite with the artillery and agree on the tactics of use. This requires a high-quality system of situational and tactical awareness, which many developers are currently working on. Unfortunately, not everyone is ready to cooperate with each other, and some even harm when they come directly to the military and promote their systems. They kill communication on the front line because different units have different systems in use. This does not give an opportunity to understand where the friend and the foe are, to receive support or, in the end, not to attack a friend.
One of the directions I am working on is the unification of all existing digital products for the military into a single system, into a single network. I want to see how we can come together, and I want to contribute to that as much as I can. Then more of us will remain alive.
State support is expected
The state still does not recognize Mavic as a type of weapon. We do not use them officially. There is also a technical point that de jure the Chinese manufacturer has prohibited the use of these drones in combat conditions. But the fact is that russians use them. Since the state did not adopt them, training at the state level is, let’s say, insufficient. Because of this, private schools of aerial reconnaissance are organized.
There are good schools that take a responsible approach to the training of air reconnaissance and attract the best instructors. But they are also overloaded, they have huge groups. They have no support from the state.
The state could do more to help people who do amazing things. Not to try to work only for the future, for example, promise to arrange the delivery of barrage ammunition someday. If we don’t help each other now, there will simply be no future with barrage ammunition. Right now, the guys at the front are making ammunition for the drone with their own hands, and are trying to effectively hit the russian army. As long as we don’t have this in the pipeline, and the state does not purchase parts, does not conduct certification, tenders, or grants for talented engineers – all this is done at our own expense.
We at the front understand that if we do not try now and miscalculate something, at best we will not hit the enemy, and at worst we will harm our own. This is a very responsible process, and I would like to involve the state more in it. We are actually working on this.
The need for domestic drones
I’ve been hearing for a year that DJI is bad and I need to switch to other drones, but there is still no alternative option as convenient for tactical intelligence that almost every person can learn basic use in 5 days. There is no drone of this format: inexpensive, easy to use, with average communication power, and a good camera.
For a systemic solution, we need our own drones. Mavics have certain technical and software problems, the solution of which is spent a lot of effort. We got the most out of these drones and still remain limited to the tactical level – up to 5 km of flight.
The next step is an operational UAV. This is aircraft-type equipment. We have several companies that produce them, but not in mass. The operational level is from 20-30 km, usually, enemy equipment is at this distance. To see it, you need a drone that can fly there.
I have said since the first days of full-scale war that of all the available drones, our army needs wings. Mavics and Matrices are a compromise. We use them because there were no other means, and Ukraine was not ready to start serial production of winged drones.
We need wings for reconnaissance, for adjustments at long distances, to the depth of the front, say, 50-100 km. Copters don’t fly that far, and they have more complex, more demanding communication. We are currently developing wings – they are different, and cool, but we need more.
The main man in the country, as experienced people in air intelligence say, is now an engineer. This man figures out how to defeat an enemy that outnumbers us and has better supplies, with available resources and limitations. Our engineers are currently working for the army. They create the entire FPV industry, develop it, and share experience and ideas to make effective weapons in conditions where we have ammunition starvation, and old artillery. We, as a UAV community, understand that we can deliver munitions on ourselves, and we are working on that.
It is necessary to deploy the existing production and supply the divisions with them. Very often, people buy wings, even expensive wings, for themselves. Volunteers raise money, and pilots themselves work hard – it shouldn’t be like that. We are now investing our own life-earned money to be able to fight on the side of the state and defeat the enemy.