Russia Needs More Commercial Drone Pilots For Its War in Ukraine

Amateur drone enthusiasts are gathering in Russia to trade information and share knowledge.
LNR
Russian Military photo.

A drone enthusiast in Russia is organizing “Dronnitsa," a gathering that, according to a Telegram post about the event, aims to bring together drone operators from across the country and formalize a combat training system for commercial drone pilots to help Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“In this sense, the main goal of the ‘Dronnitsa’ meet is to initiate the formation of such an instructor corps, to establish, in fact, a new specialty—an instructor in the combat use of UAVs, and to create a system for training such specialists,” a translation of the post provided by Samuel Bendett on Twitter said.

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Bendett studies drones and military robots at the Center for a New American Security think tank. He’s the co-author of a paper on the use of commercial drones in the war in Ukraine and has been watching the war unfold with a specialist's lens on the use of drones. According to Bendett’s paper, off-the shelf drones are a huge player in the war. 

“Currently, both Russian and Ukrainian forces are using military drones to strike targets on the ground, along with numerous surveillance models—both civilian and military—that provide situational awareness of the battlespace,” he wrote in the study. “A key evolution of today’s commercial drone technology as relatively cheap and easy to use resulted in its widespread use in numerous conflicts around the world, including the ongoing war in Ukraine.”

Commercial drones have become an important part of modern war. The Islamic State pioneered the art of bombing with commercial drones. Both Russia and Ukraine have been using quad-copters and other small scale drones to spy on enemy lines and drop small munitions. It doesn’t always go well and the accidents and disasters are often captured on video and uploaded to Telegram.

But Russia has had a hard time of late finding commercial drones to use in its war effort. DJI, one of the biggest drone manufacturers in the world, stopped selling to both sides in April. Moscow has pushed to ramp up domestic production of drones, but there’s no factories ready to get that production rolling.

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“The military continues to manufacture drones for the war in Ukraine, although probably in smaller numbers. It's likely that the military stocked up on key parts and components prior to the war, but it's also clear that despite years of discussions, tests and even concept/prototype developments, Russia still lacks certain UAV capacity at scale,” Bendett told Motherboard. “On the civilian market, imported drones like DJI dominate, with very few Russian manufacturers able to produce UAvs and quadcopters.”

The other problem is a lack of pilots and enthusiasts. Russia’s drone laws are complicated and cities like Moscow have closed air spaces that require a special permit to fly. It’s a problem that the organizer of “Dronnitsa” seems aware of. 

“What can be done to popularize the topic of drones in ‘peaceful’ life?” the organizer Dronnitsa asked on Telegram. “It would be much easier if, in the active Armed Forces, the majority already had at least some basic familiarity with the subject and basic UAV piloting skills obtained back in civilian life."

As Bendett pointed out, Dronnitsa is unofficial. It’s a volunteer-organized event and it’s unclear if Russia’s Ministry of Defense will be present in any way. “This seems to be the inaugural event of this kind that brings together combat drone operators from Russian, [Donetsk People’s Republic]and [Luhansk People’s Republic] forces,” he told Motherboard “Although there is no evidence of an official MOD backing, it's likely that content created at the event will be shared with the military in one form or another.”

Even if the event has a small turn out, Bendett thinks it will be useful for Russia’s drone efforts. “It is likely to generate a lot of useful information that can be applied to any quadricopter/small UAV pilot in combat,” he said. “So if public lessons are shared across Telegram, they will reach a lot of people in and outside of Russia.”