In the Russia-Ukraine war, drones are one of the most powerful weapons

by | Jul 30, 2022 | Top Stories

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A member of a Ukrainian military surveillance team gets ready to launch a drone from a wheat field in southern Ukraine.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

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Jason Beaubien/NPR

SOUTHERN UKRAINE — The images on the laptop are of a ghost town. The camera looking down swivels and zooms in on a burnt-out school. Sitting in the back of a Ukrainian military van, hidden under camouflage netting, Sacha is monitoring video from a surveillance drone. His team just launched the drone off a 30-foot-long slingshot. It’s now crossed the front line and is peering into a Russian-occupied village. Sacha zooms in further. “You see the burned machines,” he says, pointing to a pair of rust-red metal carcasses in the school yard. A turret comes into view as the drone, flying nearly one kilometer above the village, crosses over the school. “That’s a burned tank,” Sacha says. There are no cars moving in the streets. No pedestrians. It appears to Sacha that all the residents of the village have fled. Various animals wander from yard to yard. “You can see the cows,” he says, pointing at the screen. “They don’t belong to anyone anymore. Unfortunately, animals also suffer in this war.”

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Sacha and one of his drone team colleagues monitor a live video feed from a drone they’re flying over a Russian-occupied part of Ukraine.

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Jason Beaubien/NPR

Their job for the day is to determine whether Russian forces have pulled back entirely from this village. The area is contested and the Ukrainians have shelled it heavily with artillery in recent days. “We got this task from intelligence this morning,” Sacha says, referring to the Ukrainian military intelligence service.

The resolution of the live-streamed video is good enough that Sacha says he can recognize stray dogs by sight in many of the villages he monitors. The drone stores even higher-resolution images in an on-board memory chip that his team can analyze more closely once the drone returns. “The day before yesterday, the enemy truck was in the yard there,” Sacha says, leaning closer to the laptop. “Now the truck is gone.” The unit is named for a popular fictional character This Ukrainian drone unit is named Karlson after a flying character from a classic Swedish children’s book, Karlsson on the Roof. They’ve allowed NPR to visit them under the condition that their full names and location are not disclosed. The team uses various small drones that you can buy at an electronics store for a few thousand dollars. On this day, they’re operating their largest fixed-wing drone. They raised tens of thousands of dollars to purchase this online. It looks like a miniature plane, with a camera mounted on its nose. The Karlson aerial surveillance team is officially a territorial defense unit. In Ukraine, just about anybody can set up a territorial defense unit. Some of them are simply a bunch of guys with AK-47s who take turns manning checkpoints outside villages. Others are fully equipped infantry units that have been incorporated into the armed forces.
Karlson is made up of 23 men, mostly in their 30s, from the Dnipro area. Prior to the Russian invasion, none had military experience. The commander, who goes by the nom de guerre “Playboy,” says everyone on the team has different backgrounds. Playboy used to run his own business. “We have technical specialists, IT specialists,” he says. Sacha, in his fatigues, body armor and beard, looks every bit the soldier. Playboy says with a laugh, “Can you believe he used to be a politician!”

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