(NEW YORK) — In a workshop in an undisclosed location in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, a group of IT experts and engineers are assembling plastic components and soldering electrical wires.
Bartek Kowalski from Poland, the only overseas member of an otherwise all-Ukrainian team, modestly jokes that the intricate task he is performing can be learnt by “watching Youtube tutorials.”
But the work of these volunteers is no laughing matter.
They take drones which can be purchased on the internet and adapt them into fighting machines for the Ukrainian military.
A custom-made fitting, designed in their lab, which is fixed onto the underside of a drone can carry a grenade that can then be dropped onto Russian positions.
At the end of August, the Ukrainian military announced it was launching a counteroffensive in the south of the country. And, this week, Ukrainian forces appeared to be gaining significant amounts of ground in the Kharkiv region in the northeast.
Yevhen Tkach is a biologist by trade who now spends the bulk of his time managing volunteer efforts to procure, adapt and supply drones to Ukrainian military units.
He says he regularly receives information from military colleagues confirming the positive impact drones are making in the Ukrainians’ ongoing operations to recapture territory.
As well as their work to attach grenades to drones, Tkach and his colleagues are also taking other types of drones, and attaching explosives to them so they can be flown directly into a target in a kamikaze-style attack.
His team is also working to fit certain drones with thermal cameras because a lot of the work undertaken by reconnaissance and sabotage units along the frontlines in Ukraine is carried out at night.
As Yevhen Tkach points out, a drone is nowhere near as valuable as the life of a soldier, so the machines can access dangerous areas, acting as the military’s “eyes in the sky.”
And he acknowledges that the Russians are “really good at electronic warfare.”
With the war in Ukraine predominantly an artillery battle, drones gather vital intelligence, allowing a unit to pinpoint enemy positions and assets. The location of any target is then passed to artillery units.
However, soldiers who pilot drones are sometimes targets themselves.
Before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February, Oleksandr Trofymenko was an event manager in Denmark.
He quickly returned to his native Ukraine and now serves alongside a former farmer, DJ and security guard in a Ukrainian drone reconnaissance unit based in Zaphorizhia. Oleksandr and his colleagues are heavily armed and alive to the risks they face.
“As soon as we launch the drone the Russians are hunting for us,” he said with a wry smile.
Defending their own territory, he argues, gives units like his an obvious advantage.
“We know everything,” about the terrain, he said.
Trofymenko is grateful to the army of Ukrainian volunteers who support units like his with vital equipment and even weapons.
Yevhen Tkach and his small group of engineers in Zaphorizhia also hack the drones before they supply them to reconnaissance units for use on the battlefield.
By hacking a drone they rid it of any digital signature which could reveal a unit’s location to the Russians.
Holding his drone aloft, soldier Oleksandr Trofymenko confidently states that the Russians can’t see it.
“This is the work of Ukrainian engineers,” he said.
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