Cheap racing drones offer precision warfare at scale

It is human v machine at its simplest. The soldier is crouched under the hull of his battered and immobilised tank. A drone languidly drifts towards him, as if taking stock of the duel. The soldier runs for it. He clambers over the front of his tank to escape. The ensuing chase has a hint of farce, with the drone in pursuit as the soldier circles the tank desperately. Within 15 seconds it is all over. The drone explodes. As the smoke clears, the soldier lies crumpled on the ground.

The internet is awash with snuff movies from the war in Ukraine. Many depict the lethal feats of a type of weapon that did not exist at the outset of the war, but which has come to assume near mythical status on the front lines: the First Person View (FPV) drone. Derived from racing quadcopters, these are guided to their target by a pilot on the ground who watches a video feed through goggles.

The development of such drones began in garages by unpaid enthusiasts, and sometimes in the teeth of official resistance. Now both Russia and Ukraine churn out hundreds of thousands per year, and are keen to imbue them with artificial-intelligence (AI) capabilities that represent the cutting edge of lethal autonomy at scale.

Don’t try running away

The appeal of FPV drones is that they offer cheap, accurate firepower. Unguided artillery shells cost anywhere between $800 and $9,000. A GPS-guided shell is closer to $100,000, and a Javelin anti-tank missile around twice as much again. A simple FPV drone costs perhaps $400. A typical Ukrainian assault group of 12 to 16 soldiers is now accompanied by almost the same number of drone operators, of whom half a dozen are FPV pilots, notes Franz-Stefan Gady, a military analyst who frequently visits the front lines. (The rest fly other sorts of drones, for tasks such as reconnaissance.)

With Ukraine facing a major shortage of conventional artillery—it fires 2,000-3,000 shells a day, about a quarter of what Russia manages—FPV drones can help close the firepower gap. Drones are agile and relay pictures back to their operators in real-time. That lets them perform tricks that artillery cannot, such as chasing vehicles or soldiers and flying into buildings or trenches.

They offer psychological advantages too. Artillery barrages typically come in waves. Soldiers in trenches can hide in relative safety underground until a bombardment is finished. But drones can loiter near their targets, making them a persistent, insidious threat that can strike at any time. In a one-week period in the autumn of 2023, Ukrainian drones took out 428 pieces of Russian equipment, including 75 tanks and 101 artillery pieces. Samuel Bendett of the Centre for Naval Analysis, an American think-tank, points to Russian front-line accounts that say the threat of drone attacks forces troops to disperse and move in small groups under the cover of darkness.

For most fervent drone advocates, all this is a glimpse of a future in which disposable aircraft replace big guns entirely. “This is a new type of…high-precision aerial artillery,” argued Dmitry Rogozin on January 23rd. Mr Rogozin oversaw parts of Russia’s arms industry from 2011 to 2018 and now serves in the puppet regime running the occupied Ukrainian province of Zaporizhia. “It will gradually replace conventional…artillery, since it is much more accurate and cheaper, and the recording of target hits is visible to the operators.”

The more common view is that drones will indeed revolutionise warfare, but alongside artillery rather than instead of it. A trio of artillery pieces might fire two or three rounds per minute for an entire hour, with each round delivering 10kg of high explosive with a blast that is lethal within a radius of 50 metres. Delivering that much firepower by an average FPV would require dozens of drones, each with their own pilot. Drones require a line of sight back to their operators. That is less of a problem in the flatter parts of Ukraine, such as Kherson and Zaporizhia, but a bigger issue in hillier regions such as Donetsk. And artillery can still fire in high winds or heavy rain—or in the cold, which can sap a drone’s battery, and therefore its range.

“Achilles”, a Ukrainian drone commander based near Bakhmut in the east of the country, says that his FPV drones, which cost between $300 and $500 each, have destroyed millions of dollars worth of Russian equipment. But he emphasises their role in an orchestra of violence: “It is the combined firepower of artillery and drones that is powerful.” FPVs—as well as more conventional mines or fire from armoured vehicles—can be used to paralyse a vehicle and force its crew out, he says. Artillery then hits the position and either kills them outright or forces them into shelter.

If the soldiers make it into cover, the drones go back to work. Skilled pilots can guide them into underground shelters that artillery cannot reach. “Even if the enemy survives the explosion, there won’t be enough air to breathe,” says Achilles. “So they start coming out. And as soon as they do, we hit them with mortar [fire] or artillery or a fragmentation shell.” Such synergies are why Achilles thinks FPV drones will not replace conventional artillery for the foreseeable future. “Our [allies] need to banish any thought they can send us millions of drones in place of shells, and that we’ll cope. It’s just not true. Artillery is a different thing altogether.”

There is no escape

Whatever the future holds, for now the two sides seem to be employing different tactics. Ukrainian drone units are asked to upload videos of their exploits to “Delta”, a piece of battlefield management software that can help managers in Kyiv to understand what works and what doesn’t. Ukraine typically uses drones against high-value targets, such as armoured vehicles, artillery or supply trucks. Less is known about Russian doctrine. But its forces seem to focus their attacks on lower-value targets. Of 3,804 Russian FPV videos analysed by Lostarmour, a Russian military blog, 40% record attacks on dugouts, trenches and other front-line positions, and another 28% on soldiers in the open or sheltering in pre-existing buildings. Only a fraction show attacks on vehicles and artillery (see chart).

The rise of FPV drones has also meant a rise in countermeasures that aim to stop them. Electronic warfare is a big one, with powerful jammers that block radio signals between a drone and its operator. But there are, of course, countermeasures to the countermeasures. Drones can have their electronics hardened to resist jamming, though that increases the price. Some newer FPV drones are being delivered with swappable radio chips, making it easy to change the frequencies on which they operate. “If the FPV drone is set up properly with the right software, and with the antenna at the right angle…you can’t stop the drone,” insists Pavlo Litovkin, an instructor at KazhanFLY, a drone training school near Kyiv. And precisely because the jammers emit so much electromagnetic radiation, they are easy to spot targets in their own right.

The number of Ukrainian drone attacks that get through varies greatly along the front lines. They are used everywhere (see map) but in newly formed units, whose commanders, troops grumble, have been appointed through political connections, a hit rate of 10% to 15% is common. But in specialised units, such as special forces or those from Ukraine’s intelligence services, it can be 70 or 80%.

Skilled pilots are one of the best ways to improve a drone’s effectiveness. Videos from the front line suggest their proficiency has risen dramatically over the past year. In the past, operators would be happy just to hit a tank. Now they circle around and strike at the base of the rear of the turret, which can cause the tank’s ammunition to detonate, destroying it. In one video a column of six Russian armoured vehicles are struck one after the other in exactly this way.

KazhanFLY is regarded as one of the best schools. Its main FPV drone course takes ten days. Reconnaissance flying and engineering courses take another five days. Trainees begin with lectures on aeronautics and electronic warfare, before switching to a hangar with a special course of hoops and obstacles. In one exercise on a large outdoor range, pilots must hit buggies by flying through jamming.

One question is whether drones will be able to stay cheap as armies become more accustomed to defending against them. Forthcoming research by Jack Watling and his colleagues at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think-tank in London, which draws on Ukrainian military data, suggests they may not. An FPV drone that has a good chance of getting through and achieving a kill against an armoured vehicle, they argue, requires fancy features such as infrared sensors for night missions, a high-quality radio which is resistant to interference from nearby drones, a biggish antenna and enough thrust to carry 5kg of high explosive.

Mr Watling and his colleagues estimate a price of about $30,000—two orders of magnitude higher than the cheap and cheerful munitions in use today. Many Ukrainian drone builders and operators vehemently contest these assumptions, arguing that much cheaper drones will remain effective, and that—as the garage-built drones have already proved—standard military procurement is bloated and inefficient.

Seek and destroy

One capability that drone pilots are keen on is autonomous object recognition, which would allow a drone cut off by jamming to complete the last phase of its attack autonomously. Object recognition is already available on expensive drones, like America’s Switchblade 300, which costs $53,000. Russia’s Ovod (Gadfly) FPV has supposedly used a similar AI-based “terminal guidance” system since last summer. But drone advocates argue that this too can be done on the cheap. The Ukrainian Scalpel drone, for instance, costs $1,000 and can lock onto a target designated by its pilot. So does the AirUnit, a prototype drone whose final version aims to be cheaper still. A recent FPV video claims to show two Russian Pantsir air-defence systems being destroyed using autonomous guidance.

These systems are not yet reliable and autonomous terminal guidance is not commonplace on the low-end systems. Some Ukrainian insiders suggest that a turning point could come in April or May, though Eric Schmidt, a former CEO of Google and frequent visitor to Ukraine, is investing heavily in Ukrainian drone production. People familiar with those efforts say that the aim is not only to mass produce units (which should help drive costs down even further), but to give them clever capabilities as cheaply as possible.

Software-defined radios, for instance, replace dedicated electronic components with programmable computer chips. They make it easier to implement techniques such as frequency hopping, which should make communications harder to jam. Another idea is to replace GPS tracking, which can also be jammed, with optical navigation, which tracks the terrain a drone flies over. Commercial components will be used wherever possible. That should keep costs down, and help ensure that the final product is compliant with ITAR, a set of infamously restrictive American arms-export regulations to which Mr Schmidt, being an American citizen, is subject. Both Russia and Ukraine hope for a technological breakthrough. But they plan for a drone war of attrition.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, wants to produce 1m FPV drones over the course of 2024. December 2023 was an inflection point, says Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s tech-savvy deputy prime minister, with “tens of thousands” of drones rolling off production lines—twice the level of the entire previous year. Despite recent attacks on drone factories and a shortage of explosives, state-procured FPV drones now outnumber volunteer-made ones for the first time. “The number one priority,” wrote Valery Zaluzhhny, Ukraine’s top general, in an essay published on February 1st, “is mastery of an entire arsenal of…cheap, modern and highly effective, unmanned vehicles”.

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