A buzz fills the air above a grassy field near Kyiv as a class of new pilots practises flying commercial drones – the kind designed to film weddings and movies.
When their training is completed, the pilots will bring their drones and flying skills to the front lines of this war, repurposing them to detect Russian military positions and even drop bombs.
An officer of the Ukrainian army and co-founder of the drone school – who goes by the nom de guerre “Academic” – says the school trains people to fly, protect themselves and save lives.
“But everyone knows that the moon has two sides, and with the same skills you can deliver death,” he says.
The Globe and Mail is not identifying him to protect his safety.
Ukraine has launched a “dronation” campaign to create an army of drones for the war effort. Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s Minister of Digital Transformation, recently tweeted that the campaign had received about 200 million Ukrainian hryvnias (about $9-million), which was used to purchase two Warmate unmanned systems, as well as dozens of commercial drones.
“The number we need is immense,” a senior Ukrainian official, Yuri Shchygol, told reporters last week. He said Ukraine wants to purchase 200 NATO-grade military drones but will eventually require 10 times more.
In a crowded classroom after their last flying class, Academic gave the pilots a motivational farewell speech. He told them they are the vanguard of a high-tech war, and as such the enemy will do anything to hunt down and eliminate them.
“Because you can’t run away from the war, the war can only be stopped. And we will stop this war by gaining a victory in this war because we are protecting our land, our children and our parents and their future.”
“I reminded them we’re an army of heroes ready to die for this country,” he later told The Globe. “But we need to look on this from the position that we want to survive and to kill – to kill to win. It will be a hard challenge, but we will do it.”
He said training schools are being opened in collaboration with drone companies across the country, with the goal of training 500 pilots each month. The drones will be used primarily for infantry reconnaissance, but also to correct mortar and artillery fire.
“We learned how to do warfare with things not created for warfare, so in previous times these drones were used for shooting weddings and birthday parties but now they’re effective weapons on the front line and we are training those people to fight.”
However, he pointed out, the Russians are also training pilots for this type of warfare.
“Our missions require skills to operate different types of drones,” said the only female trainee pilot outside Kyiv that day, a member of the Special Operations Forces, whom The Globe is not identifying because she was not authorized to speak to the media.
“I’ve used some Switchblades, which we have received from allies,” she said, referring to the U.S.-made system that, like the Polish-made Warmate, carries a warhead and is known as a suicide drone. “They are really good for urban operations, where you need to hit the target in a window or behind the corner. When we go to the front lines, we need some more heavy equipment for surveillance on longer distances and more firepower. That’s why I am here, to ensure that I will be capable to fly on different drones in different situations.”
Across the city, another drone effort is under way in which volunteers assemble 3-D-printed devices they call “drop off systems” to hang grenades beneath commercial drones.
Pavlo Nepsha, the head of charity Territory of Life, which co-ordinates the efforts of volunteers aiding the Ukrainian military and victims of the war, was the manager of a sailing school before the war.
He showed The Globe a video of a drone and grenade in action, the aircraft barrelling toward the ground and landing near a Russian armoured vehicle and troops.
Before the war, “I can’t imagine that I will do something like this, I will help to kill people,” he said.
“Now when I see the enemy’s death I feel only satisfaction. It’s not good, I know that. It’s not good in normal society, normal country. But now it’s only the question of our survival.”
He said his organization has to strike a balance between sharing news of its work, in order to raise funds, while not disclosing exactly what they are doing or their location.
“I know many guys who are doing similar work and they were attacked by missiles in Kharkiv and other regions, so that’s why safety is a problem for us,” he said.
Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies under the President of Ukraine, said the initiative to use commercial drones is a good idea, but they have limitations and cannot be considered alternatives to military-grade drones.
“It’s a kind of an attempt to compensate for our weakness, to improvise, but again it’s not a substitution for real military-grade UAVS we’re asking from allies in terms of range, in terms of resistance to electronic warfare.
“It’s a good thing to have the ability to conduct reconnaissance” and maybe drop minor munitions on enemy troops, “but it’s not a substitution for real artillery.”
With a file from the Associated Press
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