Drones in the Ukraine War: April 3rd to April 11th, 2022
More evidence that Russian forces are using DJI drones, what to do if a drone chases you, and more
I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy about how drones are being used in the war in Ukraine, and about some of the dangers that consumer drone pilots in war zones face. You can read it here.
“The Russians won’t use commercial Chinese-made drones in a real war, since they know the security risks are huge.” Or so said many analysts and observers during the first few weeks of the war in Ukraine. Until the 2022 war in Ukraine began, most people assumed - entirely understandably - that Russia had fearsome electronic warfare capabilities, access to high quality UAV technology, and a sophisticated grasp of the dangers therein.
Well, we don’t have to speculate any longer.
There’s now a treasure-trove of evidence out there on Telegram and other social media channels that indicate that Russian and Russia-backed forces are also using DJI drones widely, too.
Early on in the war, there were a few pieces of evidence that Russian and Russian-backed forces were using DJI products. On February 26th, the Ukrainian Armed Forces reported that a Russian reconnaissance captured near Kharkiv were carrying DJI Mavic drones on their person.
Another video from March 4th, uploaded by the pro-Russian WarGonzo account, shows Russian forces advancing in tanks and on foot through the massively damaged city of Volnovakha in the Donestk region. Amid the gun fire and the flames, a Russian soldier holds what appears to be a DJI Mavic controller, which he’s likely using to provide overwatch for the column of men as they move forward.
I’ve come across far more evidence of Russian use of small drones ever since, much of it posted on Telegram accounts run by the official PR teams of Russia-aligned fighting forces.
Take the below video (which you can watch at my Twitter account), which I pulled off an official Telegram account used by the Luhansk People’s Republic. In it, you can see a LPR soldier demonstrating flying a DJI Mavic 3, a brand-new drone model released by China’s DJI.
Russian forces are also starting to post publicly about receiving drone donations from what are described as charitable organizations. This feels like a new development: while I’ve seen many posts from the Ukrainian side about donations of drone equipment from supporters, these are the first I’ve seen from the Russian side. (No, these are not donations directly from DJI: these are almost certainly drones that have been purchased from electronics retailers in Russia).
A March 29th video posted on Telegram by a pro-Russian account shows a alleged DPR fighter flying a DJI drone over Maryinka, complete with dramatic music. (Be aware of graphic imagery, including images of bodies, when viewing the full video on Telegram).
On March 30th, a pro-Russian Telegram account (@voenacher) posted a video in which a Russian soldier shows off his newly-acquired DJI Mavic 3, which appears to have been a donation from a volunteer organization.
An April 6th video shows a fighter holding a brand-new in the box DJI Mavic 3, next to a vehicle marked with the “Z” symbol. Per the original Telegram post, the drones were apparently donated by a volunteer organization run by a certain Vladimir Orlov, who describes himself as an “engineer, military expert.”
In two videos released on April 8th by Russian-friendly Telegram channels, members of the DPR thank their benefactors for donating DJI drones to the cause, and demonstrate newly-acquired DJI Phantom and DJI Mavic drones.
Yet another video purports to show "Colonel Olga "Korsa" commander of the artillery battalion of the MLRS NM DPR” holding a DJI Mavic drone and expressing thanks for donations.
In a post on April 9th from the @ColonelCassad Telegram channel, an alleged DPR fighter - who appears to be the same person who shows up in the DPR videos above - poses with a new in-the-box DJI Mini 2.
Even more recently, an April 11th video posted by the Donestk People’s Republic on their official Telegram account shows what appears to be a pricy DJI Matrice-series drone, equipped with a thermal camera sensor (which may very well be DJI’s Zenmuse H20T thermal sensor).
A rudimentary Google translation gives me:
📹A powerful drone has appeared in service with the People's Militia of the DPR
The People's Militia of the DPR continues to work with public organizations. Thus, the public organization "VECHE" handed over to the defenders of Donbass a powerful unmanned aerial vehicle DJi Matrice 300RTK, equipped with a camera with a thermal imager, a laser rangefinder and a powerful optical zoom, which allows you to accurately adjust fire on enemy forces day and night, destroying Ukrainian Nazis who are firing on the territory of the Donetsk People's Republic.
The Kadyrovite fighters from Chechnya have featured DJI drones repeatedly in their slickly-produced promotional videos in recent days, including a series of videos from Mariupol in early April that appear to show Kadryovites participating in an attack on the Azovstal steel plant on the outskirts of the city. (As I write this on April 12th, I’ve yet to see anything conclusive about what some claim was a chemical attack in the Avostal area of Mariupol carried out with a drone).
In this video posted on April 2nd to Ramzan Kadyrov’s official Telegram account (@Kadyrov_95), fighters allegedly from Sultan “Wrestler” Rashayev’s unit crowd around a smartphone that appears to be attached to a DJI drone. Another video, posted to the @Kadyrov_95 account on April 3rd, appears to show Kadyrov leader Zamid Chalaev observing video shot by a DJI drone, in which the camera follows what are claimed to be Ukrainian fighters on the roof of a building - possdibly the Azovsal steel plant.
And then, there’s the mercenaries. A number of videos posted to Telegram channels that appear affiliated with the infamous Wagner Group show their fighters using DJI drones on the Ukraine battle field. Largely, they seem to be using the drones in a similar manner to everybody else, primarily for targeting and for reconnaissance.
In a video from April 9th, posted to the @rsotmdivision Telegram channel, the poster claims: “We came to help the 9th Marine Regiment of the DPR. UAVs are snapped up in this conflict.” The video shows a fighter walking through a residential area, then shows him piloting what appears to be a DJI Mavic above the area, as artillery fire sounds off in the background.
Another RSOTM/Grey Zone YouTube video appears to concern drones and drone donations, though I could really use a Russian speaker to tell me what’s going on.
A Google translation of the caption accompanying the video below (which was posted on March 31st) says:
““Practice shows that if artillery works by coordinates, then it simply works by areas, but if artillery has eyes, then it already becomes a 152-caliber sniper rifle. The sooner you understand this, the more effective you will become.”"
On March 18th, the mercenary linked REVERSE SIDE OF THE MEDAL Telegram account posted a video featuring what appear to be DJI Phantom and DJI Mavic drones, thanking “sympathetic readers” for their financial donations. A video regarding the donation call is available on Telegram here.
Another possibly-mercenary affiliated Telegram account (@grey_zone) posted an appeal on March 20th for more batteries for the DJI Mavic 2 ENTERPRISE DUAL, as they were “not possible to buy on the spot.”
What To Do When a Drone Chases You
Back on April 7th, Ukraine war-watching Twitter was fascinated by a video that appears to show a Russian soldier sprinting away from a low-flying drone that’s pursuing him - and as the drone follows, he runs right to the location where his unit has camped out.
Ukrainian forces, per their own sources, quickly took advantage of this information and attacked the camp.
Many people who watched this video, which exists in that curious liminal space somewhere in between “funny” and “dystopian horror,” were left with one big question: what should you do if you’re being chased by a drone?
Konrad Iturbe on Twitter had a good answer.
I can confirm that this is a good strategy. Assessing the relative altitude of other objects while you’re flying a drone is always tricky, and it’s not a given that every DJI pilot participating in the war will be particularly experienced.
As for my own, decidely non-exhaustive advice….
Find something to hide under. This seems pretty self-explanatory, but it’s worth reiterating. If you’re seeing a small drone during the day AND it’s chasing you, it’s probably not equipped with thermal imaging capabilities.
If you’re extra unlucky and the drone does have a thermal sensor, here’s some good tips on how to hide. Since the war began, Ukrainians have figured out that foam mats (ie, yoga mats) work very well for preventing Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting their body heat, allowing them to move undetected in the darkness Glass, space blankets, and woolen blankets are also all wise things to hide under if you don’t have a yoga mat on hand.
Generally, you’re a lot harder to see if you happen to be standing on or near a surface that’s about as hot as the human body is. You can also put on more warm clothes, set other things around you on fire (this seems less helpful with a drone), and lurk under thick netting.
Wait out the battery. Most consumer drones have a max battery life of around 30 to 40 minutes, and that’s under ideal conditions. Considering that most small drones also have a maximum range of around one to 2 miles (also under ideal conditions), by the time a drone has managed to 1. find you and 2. chase you, a considerable amount of battery life will already be accounted for. If you’re hiding under something, you’re probably not going to have to wait very long for the drone to leave.
Don’t run back to anything important. Small drones might be creepy, but they’re also usually not armed - and like I just said, they won’t be able to hang out regarding you with those terrible mechanized eyes for very long.
What if the drone is armed? “Dropping explosives on people from small consumer and DIY drones” is much more of an ambush technique, preferably one that’s used at night. (That’s what Ukraine’s startlingly successful Aerorozvidka drone unit seems to be doing).
If you’ve had the chance to notice the drone is there and to run away already, the drone is probably unlikely to be able to drop a grenade on your head. But you should probably still run in a zig-zag pattern just in case. And try not to trip and break your ankle.
If you have no other alternatives and you’re confident the drone isn’t armed, ambling away in the direction of something you don’t care about to throw the drone off the trail is a perfectly valid strategy.
You can also throw trying some rocks at the drone. Or shooting at it, if you happen to have a gun and if you’re pretty confident no one else in the area will be hit by a stray bullet. While it’s highly unlikely that you’ll actually hit anything, it’ll make you feel better. And it’ll make the drone pilot nervous.
Don’t worry too much about the drone recognizing your face. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that you could be personally IDed from drone imagery. And wearing something over your face is never a bad idea. But it’s unlikely, and it’s really unlikely that your enemies would be able to successfully ID you using automated facial recognition techniques. (I wrote about that in 2020).
Remember that the drone almost certainly can’t hear you. Consumer drones, like most DJI products, don’t come with two-way speakers. Swear all you want, but don’t expect the pilot to hear it.
That’s all for now. I’ll be watching developments in the recent allegations of a drone-involved chemical attack in Mariupol with great interest, but as I write this, I’m not aware of any conclusive information. As always, hit me up on Twitter at @faineg with any questions or comments.