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Using drones to aid a war-torn Ukraine

April 12, 2022

Thank you to Dr. Richard Baker, Associate Dean of Graduate Programs at Capitol and aviation expert for contributing this guest post to the Capitology blog.


On Thursday, February 24, 2022, Russian forces crossed the border into Ukraine.  Immediately, unmanned aerial vehicles, better known as drones, were put into action. 

Known for their abilities to act as remote eyes, ears, and hands (manipulators) at a distance, they can provide support for commercial, agricultural, industrial, and military applications. Why not use them in Ukraine? 

The first two applications were almost simultaneous. One was military, to provide situational awareness for commanders and troops in the field to gather intelligence. The second was for journalists to video the actions in the field in real-time and provide the world with direct views into the developments of the war. This is what we see on the news channels. 

Upon analysis, these two uses of drones seem natural choices–quick, easy, and effective. However, there must be other possible uses that will (or do) support this technology. For example, Ukraine’s landscape is now tragically littered with dangerous partially collapsed structures that need to be searched for survivors, and drones may be used to complete these searches without risking the lives of emergency responders. The drones may also be used to locate Russian forces and help coordinate Ukraine’s defense. 

Before drone technology can be deployed to areas in need, the equipment must be acquired. American manufacturers and others are providing the drones or unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and teaching the Ukrainians how to operate them. When the systems arrive, usually in Poland, they must be delivered to Ukrainians to take custody and eventually transfer them to Ukraine. 

Once they drones arrive, training must take place because the systems are new to the operators and they will be used in highly dangerous environments, e.g. partially collapsed buildings or other structures or the battle area. So, the operators or pilots are trained in secret locations for emergency response in search and rescue and defense work.  

Many UAS are equipped to enter extreme environments and enable two-way communication, making them ideal for search and rescue in dangerous situations. In cities undergoing Russian attacks, rescues are increasingly dangerous. UAS offer responders valuable tools for finding survivors without putting the operators at risk. 

After some basics, the training usually progresses to more challenging maneuvers, such as how a UAS vehicle could push open a blocked door, enter confined spaces, flip over and fly if it was knocked on its back.  For motivated Ukrainians, the training is effective and welcome. 

Ukrainians are using specialized UAS donated by an American manufacturer to penetrate the treacherous gaps of bombed-out apartments and high-rises.  This gives Ukrainian rescuers a better chance to locate and reach victims. 

Medical Response and Search and Rescue Drones come equipped with cutting-edge temperature-managed, top-mounted Medical Response Payload Boxes, capable of transporting as much as 35 pounds of medical supplies, such as blood, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, water, and wound care kits.  UAS are supporting Emergency Medical Services and humanitarian aid operations.  

While the Ukrainians continue to fight for freedom, there is an urgent need for medical supplies and equipment in several dangerous and hard-to-reach areas. The Medical Response and Search and Rescue Drones will play a crucial role in ensuring that those affected have access to the aid they require. 

Another wartime application is using the drones to soar above ridgelines and buildings to peer down at enemy forces and feed targeting locations to artillery units and reconnaissance information to commanders. The Ukrainians are rehearsing these new skills amid sheds and garages in an undisclosed location. The exact location of the training is not identified because of security concerns. 

Drones are already used by both sides in the war to locate enemy forces and relay targeting data back to artillery batteries. While the tiny aircraft are difficult to shoot down, their signals can be jammed and even traced back to the drone operator, who would then be the new target. 

Since day one, drones have been in the sky to provide intelligence to the military commanders, but also as eyes and ears of the journalists on the ground.  UAS provide an excellent platform to collect video of the ongoing events and provide safety to the operators. They may provide information to civilians who are caught in the middle to know when to seek shelter or flee the immediate area. 

Since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, UAS have been utilized by both sides. In the future we will see more applications and learn how important an asset they may be to forces in the field and to journalists covering the events.   

To wrap up, we must remember drones are not good or evil. They are simply technology.  The difference between good and evil is how we use them.  Our hope for the Ukrainian people is that good will overcome.