Ukrainian soldiers are turning consumer drones into formidable weapons of war

Simple photography drones are being put to good use on the battlefield in Ukraine. Videos show soldiers using these drones – the same kind you can buy online for hobby use – to surveil Russian troops and find the best point of attack. Other drones have been refitted to hold small explosives that can be dropped directly on the enemy. These off-the-shelf UAVs showcase just one of the inventive, “DIY” methods the Ukrainian army has used to counter Russian attacks.

Ukrainian soldiers have been sharing videos on social media of the ways in which consumer “off-the-shelf” drones can be used on the battlefield, either as surveillance tools or to deliver munitions.
Ukrainian soldiers have been sharing videos on social media of the ways in which consumer “off-the-shelf” drones can be used on the battlefield, either as surveillance tools or to deliver munitions. © Observers

Since the Russian invasion on February 24, Ukrainian citizens have been called upon to join the war effort, either by joining the military, defending their homes with Molotov cocktails and other homemade weapons, or even donating their own drones to help surveil Russian troops.

Commercial drones that have made their way to Ukraine are now a useful tool for troops, many of whom post photos and videos online to showcase how they’ve outfitted these devices for military use. 

A Ukrainian soldier shows off a commercial drone that has been modified to drop munitions.
A video posted on Twitter on June 12 shows a soldier wearing goggles and flying a commercial drone for surveillance.

‘You can buy lots of them and think of them as disposable items that you use once or twice’

The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to Mark Cancian, a former US Marine and senior advisor at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. An expert in artillery and military strategy who has been following the war in Ukraine closely, he told us about the benefits of using commercial drones:

[Commercial drones] are much cheaper than military drones. You can buy lots of them and think of them as disposable items that you use once or twice, and then they're gone. So they're very attractive for groups that don't have a lot of money. They're also much easier to get a hold of. A military that doesn’t have access to military drones would use them, but insurgent groups often use them too. ISIS used commercial drones because that’s what they could get a hold of. And people are very clever and resourceful and turn them into useful weapons. 

A video posted on Twitter on July 27, 2022 shows a commercial drone that has been modified by Ukrainian troops to carry multiple small explosives.

It certainly looks like a do-it-yourself kind of effort. I suspect many Ukrainian soldiers are either going to the store or ordering commercial drones. It's possible the government is supplying some, but it has a very informal improvised look to it.

In the days after the invasion, thousands of Ukrainians signed up for the military to fight for their country. This resulted in entire platoons being made up of volunteers with little military training. But some have backgrounds in tech or IT – and all of them are passionate about helping ward off Russian attacks. 

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Since February, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence has put out calls on its social media pages for people to donate their drones. Ukrainians, as well as people from other countries, sent their drones to help the war effort. 

Some groups, such as Vests for Ukraine, a volunteer effort in Estonia, raised money to buy drones that Ukrainians could use. 

‘With a couple thousand euros, you can destroy hundreds of thousands of euros worth of Russian machinery’

Raivo Olev, a metalworker in Estonia, started Vests for Ukraine when he realised that the Ukrainian army lacked bulletproof vests. He began raising money and soon branched out into sending commercial drones once he realised how important they were to the Ukrainian war effort. 

There is one volunteer battalion that has been fighting since 2014, without much support from the government. If you look at that battalion today, they all have our vests, our helmets, the cars and the machinery that we gave them. They send us photos and videos. Drones are one of the things they have been asking us for. 

Everyone is realising how important drones are – whoever has the most drones has the eyes in the sky. We send commercial drones that anyone can buy. The smallest ones are just ones from the shops and bigger ones are used for industrial purposes. The industrial drones can easily be converted to drop 82mm mortar rounds [Editor’s note: a type of munition weighing around 3 kg]. They can lift up to 6 kg, fly around 5 to 7 km, drop the mortar round and then come back.

A video posted on Twitter on July 9, 2022 shows a Ukrainian soldier attaching an 82mm mortar round to a commercial drone.

Now we see that the drones are working very well. It’s good to see their responses like videos. The people who donate money can see exactly how their money is going to good use. With a couple thousand euros, you can destroy hundreds of thousands of euros worth of Russian machinery.

A video posted on August 2 by the Vests for Ukraine Twitter page shows one of their donated drones in action.

Videos have shown how a simple hand grenade dropped from a drone can cause major damage to tanks or armoured personnel carriers, which are the most vulnerable from above. Dropped explosives can easily injure troops riding on top of the vehicle as well as incapacitate a tank’s aiming and firing mechanisms.

Grenades dropped directly onto enemy positions or unarmoured vehicles can be even more devastating. 

Innovative uses to make off-the-shelf drones battle-worthy

The wave of donations by Ukrainian civilians, as well as foreign organisations, has created a veritable “army of drones”. The Ukrainian military is estimated to have more than 6,000 commercial drones in their hands, far surpassing the number of combat drones made available from countries such as the United States and Turkey.

Both trained soldiers and volunteers have become creative with the tools at their disposal to optimise these drones for the battlefield. Cancian explained: 

You see drones that have small explosives attached to them that they would drop on enemy forces, maybe a hand grenade or something like that. You see others that may be used as kamikazes, that is, they will find an enemy soldier and then maybe fly into them and injure them. They also can be used for video. Commercial drones have video systems and that can be useful for seeing where enemy forces are and maybe helping with artillery strikes. Ukrainians have come up with really very inventive ways to use these commercial drones.

A video posted on Twitter on July 31 shows a Ukrainian soldier using a commercial drone to watch an attack on Russian armoured vehicles.
A video posted on Twitter on July 7 shows a commercial drone dropping a grenade into the hatch on a Russian tank.

According to aviation expert Xavier Tytelman, Ukrainians have been working on ways to modify drones for military use since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. 

“Thanks to 3D printing, Ukrainians were able to develop assets to drop grenades or small bombs on targets,” Tytelman explained to the FRANCE 24 Observers team. “Drones improve the efficiency of artillery: they can replace soldiers for reconnaissance missions, they’re super-precise, and they’re difficult to detect and destroy. The enemy always fears the threat, even far away from the fighting.” 

A Ukrainian soldier shows off a custom 3D-printed carrier made to deliver a hand grenade dropped from a drone onto an enemy position.

A video shared by the Ukrainian Armed Forces Facebook page showed drone footage that allowed their artillery to wait until two dozen Russian troops gathered in an abandoned building before firing a salvo at the site. 

But commercial drones are not a perfect solution to all of Ukraine’s tactical needs. Cancian explained:

The downside is that they don't last very long. They are not very robust and their capabilities are quite narrow.  The drones are an interesting, useful military capability, but really an additional capability, a supporting capability, not the main element of Ukrainian military capabilities.

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‘There's an important psychological aspect, both for the soldiers involved and for Ukrainians’

Beyond their use on the battlefield, Cancian explained that – although drones may be a limited part of Ukraine’s arsenal – they serve to boost Ukrainian morale, while instilling fear into Russian troops. 

The [Ukrainian] soldiers involved are clearly very proud of what they've done. They've done some things that are very clever and they want people to see that. And I think that that encourages not only other soldiers, but the citizenry. 

A video posted on Twitter on April 7 shows a surveillance drone following a Russian soldier back to his unit, whose position was later targeted by a Ukrainian attack.

Arguably, it makes the Russians a bit more cautious. They may be walking around looking up in the air a little more, wondering if there's going to be some drone that's going to fly into them. So aside from the military capability that these provide, which is relatively limited, I think there's an important psychological aspect, both for the soldiers involved and for Ukrainians in general.