Eric Woods, Research Fellow, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Note: CNS reviewed primary sources for findings originally reported by the Organized Crime and Corruption Report Project on diversion of quadcopters to the war in Ukraine. This public version of the article omits certain transactions and entities that appear to have a role in supplying quadcopters to Russia.
Drones have played a key role on both sides in the conflict in Ukraine. While much attention has focused on Ukraine’s acquisition of UAVs from Turkey and Russia’s reliance on Iranian UAVs, less has been said about how small, mass market drones have been procured from the commercial market. Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), a Chinese mass producer of quadcopters and one of the world’s leading companies in quadcopters, has seen its products become ubiquitous as Ukrainian and Russian forces fight trench-by-trench for control of the country.
Figure 1:Quadcopter being launched on the battleground
Drones and quadcopters are instrumental for the kind of fighting currently taking place. Their cheap, disposable nature combined with sensors which can silently observe enemy movements assist both sides in identifying enemy positions for destruction by larger more complicated weapons. The price and relatively low-tech nature of quadcopters allow them to be used en masse. Jamming, artillery fire and the cold climate means these items have short lives and are constantly replaced. Moreover, adding to their desirability and proliferation across the battlefield, commercial quadcopters can be used safely away from the front line. Flying the drones is as simple as throwing the drone in the air and guiding the drone with a game controller. A clip below from independent Ukrainian outlet Bihus shows Ukrainian troops using DJI’s Mavic series quadcopters to do just this:
Russia has struggled for over a decade to get a domestic drone program off the ground. Various institutes and entities have tried to fill this gap in Russia’s military capabilities, both in terms of developing quadcopters and larger UAVS. In fact, due to the dearth of enterprises seemingly capable of manufacturing quadcopters at scale, Russian volunteer groups claim the Russian Ministry of Defense is partnering with them, both for the purposes of procuring commercial quadcopters for the Russian military, but also allegedly building them. One Telegram blog, “Drone Operator Chronicles”, released a video of masked volunteers the author claimed were building quadcopters for Russia’s airborne troops.
Figure 2: Masked Volunteers Making Quadcopters