IVANIVSKE, Ukraine — Buzzing like a large mosquito, a small drone took off from a farm field in eastern Ukraine, hovered for a while, then raced toward Russian positions near the city of Bachmut, ravaged by battle.
“Friends, let’s go,” said the pilot, Private Yevhen.
With a pair of virtual reality goggles strapped to his head, he used joysticks to steer the ship and its one-kilogram load of explosives.
Handmade attack drones, like this one, have become one of the most deadly and widespread innovations in the more than 14 months of war in Ukraine.
Along the front lines, drones extend the range of soldiers, who can pilot them with pinpoint accuracy to drop hand grenades into enemy trenches or bunkers, or fly towards targets to blow them up on impact.
Self-destructing drones, in particular, are easy to build, and now thousands of soldiers on both sides have done so experience in its manufacture from commonly used parts, although the Ukrainians claim to use this type of weapon more frequently than their Russian opponents.
These small boats proliferated on the battlefield last fall, long before Russia claimed on Wednesday that two explosions above the Kremlin were a drone strike.
Ukraine and Russia blamed each other for the incident, and if the attack drones did indeed fly over the Kremlin walls, it’s unclear what kind they were, what range they had, or who was responsible.
For years, the United States has taken sides Iraq and Afghanistan Predator and Reaper drones, which cost tens of millions of dollars each can launch missiles and then return to their bases.
Ukraine, by contrast, has adapted a wide range of widely available small boats as consumer products, from from quadcopters to fixed wing dronesto detect artillery targets and throw grenades.
Explosive drones belong to a class of weapon known as stray ammunitionto be able to circle or glide before hitting a target.
Russia produces a military-specific self-destructing drone, the handand made extensive use of Iranian-purchased Shahed strike drones.
The United States has supplied the Ukrainian military with a specific ammunition for loitering, the Switchblade.
These types of industrially manufactured devices have a longer range and some heavier loads than the homemade weapons used in Ukraine.
But the Switchblade, like the Shahed, often navigates to pre-programmed targets, a system Ukrainian soldiers say is less effective than its hand-built alternatives, remotely directed by operators.
Soldiers and civilian volunteers make them in garage workshops, experiment and invent with printed materials in 3Dexplosives and custom software to try to evade Russian electronic countermeasures.
They’ve made drones that drop bombs big enough to destroy armored vehicles and can be reused, and they cost up to $20,000.
The smallest and most common self-destructing drones, like the ones Yevhen flies, cost oneThat’s hundreds of dollars.
They are constructed from a type of drone used for amateur racing, usually a model made by the Chinese company DJI, with explosives attached by zip ties or tape.
They are single use and disposable weapons; once armed and launched, they can’t even be landed safely.
Major Kyryl Veres, commander of a Ukrainian brigade stationed near Severesk, north of Bakhmut, said in an interview:
“I see tremendous potential” for these weapons in the type of trench combat that has dominated warfare.
“Any squad can be hit in a place where the enemy thinks it’s a million percent safe.”
A cheap drone destroying a much more expensive armored vehicle is a prime example of this asymmetric warfareused to overcome the enemy’s technological or numerical advantages.
And despite the influx of Western weapons, Ukrainian forces remain overtaken by the Russians.
“The Ukrainian military should use unusual and asymmetrical tools of warfare,” said Serhiy Hrabsky, a retired army colonel and war commentator for Ukrainian media.
He drew parallels to the roadside bombs that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan used, to devastating effect, against the US military, calling them improvised explosive devices.
Ukraine, Hrabsky said, is using “improvised kamikaze drones”.
He added that “the art of war is not static”.
The experience of flying with virtual reality glasses, which provide an immersive view from the drone’s camera, is like playing a high-stress video game.
The missions are not without risks for the pilots.
The short range of drones when carrying explosive charges – about 6 km, typically – forces pilots to fly from trenches on or near the front line, where they are vulnerable to artillery and snipers.
Even so, drones are lethally effective.
The Ukrainian military has released dozens of videos recorded by drones swooping down on targets, with a devastating accuracy.
Pilots chase and overtake moving tanks or fly through the open doors of armored vehicles to explode inside, while soldiers scramble for safety at the last moment.
And they regularly fly drones into bunkers, which was the intention of Yevhen, who was stationed near a front line in the battle for Bakhmut.
On a crisp, clear spring morning, the grove of trees from which it operated was a veritable drone airfield: several units manned surveillance assets, while others attempted to drop hand grenades into the Russian trenches.
After the drone took off with a whoosh, Yevhen let it hover for a moment to test the controls.
The drone fell to the ground, a heartbreaking moment, as the explosive was rigged to detonate.
But he didn’t. It’s broken down.
If all went according to plan, he would soon see the entrance to a rapidly approaching bunker and, at the last moment, perhaps catch a glimpse of doomed Russian soldiers.
His hands were shaking on the control console.
Two other drones accompanied the attack aircraft, flying nearby to guide and film the attack.
A bundle of cables, plugs and shields in a bunker connected the system.
In the moments following takeoff, the pilots indicated altitude and passing waypoints in the landscape below.
“Do me a favor and go right,” Yevhen told an accompanying rider.
The drones have reached the critical zone where Russian electronic countermeasures could jam their signals, causing pilots to lose control and even crash.
“Stable, stable,” he said of his radio connection.
Then Yevhen lost control.
“Where did you fly to?” he asked his co-pilot, trying to get his bearings.
“I’m out here,” said the other pilot.
But Yevhen’s drone, which had exploded, had fallen several hundred meters from the target.
Neither he nor the accompanying surveillance drones, which were out of position when he fell, could tell whether he exploded or simply landed in a field.
It was also unclear whether this was Russian interference or a technical glitch.
This time, the labor of building the explosive drone and the risk of getting close enough to bring it under artillery fire was only for learning, not for successful attack.
“All is lost,” he said, taking off his glasses.
“He just fell.”
c.2023 The New York Times Society
Mary Ortiz is a seasoned journalist with a passion for world events. As a writer for News Rebeat, she brings a fresh perspective to the latest global happenings and provides in-depth coverage that offers a deeper understanding of the world around us.