DRONES HAVE become an ubiquitous part of the war in Ukraine. Both sides use consumer quadcopters to track the enemy and drop grenades. Russia has used Iranian Shahed-136 drones to torment Ukrainian cities. In February Russia detected Ukrainian drones deep in its territory. More recently Ukraine has been converting devices designed for the sport of drone-racing into small loitering munitions. Last year its forces released a video of a racing drone diving through an open doorway into a building occupied by Russian troops and exploding. A Ukrainian military drone team called Angry Birds claims to carry out half a dozen racing-drone attacks a day. How important could these improvised weapons become?
Drone-racing involves flying drones around an obstacle course at high speed. The sport has existed for around a decade and now has leagues in several countries. Racing drones are faster and more agile than the consumer models used by photographers: they can reach speeds of almost 250kph. Operators wear video goggles to get a pilot’s-eye view. The drones are also small: most weigh no more than 500g. But they can carry a payload, such as a grenade, of a kilo or so (although a heavy load reduces their speed and flight duration).
Converting a racing drone for war involves adding extra battery packs to the top and a bomb underneath. Although a range of 500 meters is sufficient for racing, with a change of radio frequency their range can be extended to a few kilometers. Unlike other bomber drones, which can attack multiple times, modified racing drones can only be used once: they blow up when they detonate their cargo. Their usefulness comes in attacking targets that are safe from vertical bombing. This includes Russian trenches, which usually have a bunker where the occupants can take shelter from artillery fire.
The weakness of these bombers, as with all drones, is their reliance on radio communication. Radio signals can struggle to reach underground areas. Videos stutter as they encounter interference and are vulnerable to jamming. But Samuel Bendett, an analyst with CNA, an American think-tank, notes that although Russia and Ukraine are adept at this kind of electronic warfare, its effect is patchy. Racing drone bombers are still useful.
Small kamikaze drones armed with explosive warheads, also known as loitering munitions, are not new. America has supplied Ukraine with several hundred Switchblade 300s, a type of loitering munition. But commercial racing drones are cheaper and easier to procure than export-controlled Switchblades, and can carry a more powerful warhead. A Ukrainian non-profit group called Black Raven, which produces drones for Ukraine’s armed forces, recently assembled 20 kamikaze drones from commercial components. Their model costs just $700, compared with around $75,000 for a Switchblade. A Ukrainian activist claims to be raising funds to acquire 500 first-person-view attack drones for $351 each, while the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is supporting a drive to fund another thousand.
Many more kamikaze drones, both improvised and commercial, are likely to follow. Russian forces already use their own versions, although not to the extent of the Ukrainians. Mr Bendett notes that the Russian Ministry of Defense recently organized a meeting with the Russian Drone Racing Federation. Other countries are taking note too. Elbit Systems, an Israeli firm, recently unveiled a military-grade quadcopter munition for indoor operations, such as clearing an occupied building of enemy troops. Small loitering munitions may appear to be a niche tool. But, as their use in Ukraine shows, an ultra-cheap guided weapon can be useful. ■