In the midst of Eastern Ukraine's frontline, the swift unpacking of a large grey drone marks the beginning of a crucial mission. These Ukrainian soldiers, mere kilometers away from Russian outposts, rely on their nation's reconnaissance drones to pinpoint their artillery targets. This technology holds the potential to both conserve their limited arsenal and enhance the accuracy of their strikes.
“We're essentially working in sniper mode,” commented Andriy, 31, a drone operator known by his call sign “Ulysses.” He further explained, “We can't afford to use many shells on one target – usually just 3, 4 or 5. We don't have the abundance of shells that the Russians do.”
While the soldiers stay hidden under trees, they closely monitor their laptops, the screens of which display real-time data sent by the drone. The operators include individuals from diverse backgrounds, including IT and marketing, some of whom speak fluent English. Despite the challenges, they take pride in their victories, such as the single-day destruction of four Russian Armata battle tanks.
The drones, while highly beneficial, come at a considerable cost. The large Leleka-100 drone, resembling a model plane, is priced at around 37,500 euros ($42,000), according to Denys, the head of the drone squad.
Designed and built at a secret location in Ukraine, the drone operates at a height of about 1,000 meters, providing quality footage of targets. While acknowledging its medium-quality status compared to Western models, Andriy notes the advantage of easily accessible spare parts from local manufacturers.
Yet the stark reality remains that each drone, on average, survives only around 20 flights before being shot down. The Ukrainian Drone Industry, affectionately dubbed a ‘baby' by Andriy, is undeniably dwarfed by Russia's superior firepower and technology.
Andriy candidly acknowledged, “Moscow can launch huge numbers of cheap Iranian-made Shahed attack drones and expect at least one to hit the target.” Additionally, Russia manufactures Lancet tactical attack drones, which he notes are “quite effective in destroying Ukrainian artillery units.”
Despite the disparities, Ukraine's drone industry shows a promising spark of resilience and innovation.
As Denys observed, “Right now we have lots of people trying to work from their garages to make their own UAVs.”
An investment in this burgeoning ‘baby' industry could potentially change the game in Ukraine's favor.
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