KYIV (Reuters) - At an unassuming industrial estate in northern Ukraine, two former Microsoft executives and a team of engineers are producing military drones that can travel over long distances and carry large payloads.
AeroDrone, which made crop-dusting drones prior to the war and now supplies Ukraine’s armed forces, makes unmanned aircraft that can carry up to 300 kilograms or fly up to several thousand kilometres in certain configurations.
As Ukraine seeks to narrow the yawning gap between its own military capabilities and Russia's, Kyiv says it is expanding its drone programme for both reconnaissance and attacking enemy targets over an increasing range. It is hoping that domestic drone makers like AeroDrone will help it meet its ambitious goals.
The government is now working with more than 80 Ukraine-based drone manufacturers, Ukraine's Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters. He said Kyiv needs hundreds of thousands of drones, many of which it is looking to source from a rapidly-expanding domestic industry. Currently, the military operates dozens of models of domestic and foreign drones that fulfil a “wide spectrum” of roles, Reznikov said, in written responses to questions.
"Drones are potentially a game-changer on the battlefield in the same way that precise Western MLRS became last year," Reznikov said, referring to Multiple Launch Rocket System weapons.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other drones are only one element of a war that is currently dominated by artillery, infantry and missiles. Moscow has been able to pound targets across Ukraine with long-range missiles, which Kyiv lacks.
"It is not worth expecting parity in the near future,” Reznikov said on closing the armament gap. He added: “Russia is also working on improving its UAVs."
Kyiv is hoping to use Western supplies of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles in the coming months to launch a counteroffensive to seize back swathes of occupied territory in the south and east.
For cash-strapped Ukraine, whose economy has been decimated by the war and whose government is now reliant on international financing, drones represent a relatively inexpensive way to fight back against Russia's vast military. Ukraine has said it will spend nearly $550 million on drones in 2023 and has set up drone assault units within its armed forces.
The secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, told Reuters unmanned vehicles that crash into their target and detonate - so-called kamikaze drones - will be a particular focus for Ukraine in 2023.
Drone warfare specialist James Rogers, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, said Ukraine's UAV capability still lags behind Russia and its Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, which have been used by Moscow to target Ukrainian energy facilities for months.
Ukraine has received significant supplies of UAVs from its partners, from Turkey's missile-equipped Bayraktar TB2 to the Norwegian-made Black Hornet reconnaissance drone, which weighs less than 33 grams.
Kyiv is now ramping up its own production. Taras Chmut, a Ukrainian defence specialist, says the country’s domestic production of aerial drones has grown by three or four times since the start of last year’s invasion. His assessment was that the country’s production of such drones capacity was “several thousand” a year if funding and parts supplies are steady.
Chmut heads a non-governmental organisation called Come Back Alive that says it has raised tens of millions of dollars of crowdfunding to supply equipment to the military, including aerial drones. He added that the size of Ukraine’s overall drone fleet had increased by “tens of times” since February 2022 due to new supplies from both abroad and Ukraine, as well as those donated by organisations such as his.
Reznikov said Ukraine had increased its drone production capacity by “several times” since Russia’s invasion in February last year and that it was now able to make drones that work in the air, on land and in the sea. The defence ministry declined to provide drone-production figures.
One area of focus is on developing airborne drones that can travel longer distances, said Reznikov. Kyiv has been seeking longer-range missiles from allies that could hit targets several hundred kilometres away, but has so far been rebuffed.
AeroDrone says one of its models, called Enterprise and based on the frame of a light aircraft, can fly over 3,000 kilometres in certain circumstances.
The company is run by Dmytro Shymkiv and Yuriy Pederiy, who met while working at Microsoft’s Kyiv offices, where Shymkiv rose to be country manager and Pederiy was responsible for a major department.
They said their military contracts strictly limit what the company can disclose, but they said the Enterprise and another model called Discovery can be used for a wide variety of tactical purposes thanks to payloads of 300 kilograms and 80 kilograms, respectively. One of the company’s aircraft can cost between $150,000 to $450,000 depending on the model and configuration, which can include features such as an anti-jamming system to counteract Russian signal interference.
During a late February visit to AeroDrone’s workshop, engineers in blue coats bustled around the metal carcass of a light aircraft that forms the skeleton of the Enterprise drone. "It can carry 200 kg for 1200 km," Shymkiv said of the Enterprise.
Pointing to the cockpit that was designed to house a pilot, he said: “Now, it’ll be the payload.”
The defence ministry said AeroDrone has contracts for the supply of two types of long range drones, but declined to disclose further detail.
The ministry declined to specify the maximum range of Ukraine's current drone fleet, but a major state-owned Ukrainian arms company announced in December it had conducted successful tests for an assault drone with a 75 kg warhead and a 1,000 km range.
The range and potency of Ukraine's drones is a sensitive issue. Russia has said some Ukrainian drones have been able to get behind the front lines, even though Ukrainian officials typically deny responsibility for suspected drone activity in Russian territory.
In December, Russia said Ukrainian drones attacked two Russian air bases which house long-range bombers deep inside its own territory, killing three Russian air force personnel.
The defence ministry in Kyiv said: "Ukraine has no connection to the events happening on Russian territory."
Over recent weeks, Russian officials have reported at least six incidents involving drones being downed or conducting attacks on the country’s territory, some of which they publicly blamed on Ukraine.
When asked by Reuters whether Ukraine uses drones to hit targets in Russia, the defence minister said: "Everything happening on the territory of Russia is a question for Russia alone. Ukraine is not a terrorist state or an attacker."
Speaking about attacks generally, national security council head Danilov said that in theory some strikes on Russian soil could be justifiable in certain circumstances.
"If there is a facility which is causing damage to our country ... We have to destroy these facilities. This is war," Danilov said, speaking to Reuters in February. "And it's not our fault that it (the target) is located on the territory of Russia."
But challenges for expanding domestic production remain. Chmut, the defence specialist, said one barrier to mass production was the reliance on foreign-supplied parts such as engines and communications systems. He and AeroDrone also said getting parts through customs can be challenging.
The process for obtaining certification for military use has also been an issue. Reznikov said the ministry has streamlined the process, reducing it to a few weeks whereas previously it had taken up to two years.
AeroDrone’s Shymkiv said a separate government ruling loosening regulations on dual-use item imports, including drones and drone parts, has made life easier for manufacturers. However, he added there remains room for improvement in removing bureaucratic hurdles generally.
The defence ministry said it was working with domestic drone manufacturers to both increase production capacity and standardise output in order to simplify servicing and training.
Danilov, the national security council head, acknowledged Ukraine’s reliance on other countries for more high-tech drone components.
"We are trying to fulfil our needs in this sector with domestic production, but we realise that it's unlikely we will be able to fulfil everything," he said.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White and Cassell Bryan-Low)