Ukraine is finally opening its skies to drone businesses, despite their “close ties” with Russia. The move signifies an important change in the way that Eastern European countries conduct business as they shift from a military-industrial complex toward entrepreneurship and tech innovation.
Ukraine has sounded the alarm on Chinese drones, opening skies to U.S. startups. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense says that China is using its “large number of unmanned aerial vehicles” to spy on Ukraine’s military and infrastructure.
Hundreds of tiny drones from American companies are probing the skies above Ukraine for survivors in war-ravaged cities and Russian hideouts in the scarred terrain.
These companies, including Seattle-based BRINC Drones Inc. and Silicon Valley’s Skydio Inc., are rushing to fill a void in Ukraine after government officials identified products supplied by SZ DJI Technology Co., the world’s largest commercial drone manufacturer, as posing a security risk to Ukraine’s military and civilians.
Officials in Ukraine have asked for a ban on the use of DJI drones, claiming that technological flaws in the company’s products may have been designed to undermine the country’s defense. They’ve also expressed reservations about Russia’s successful use of DJI technology.
DJI refutes claims that it is assisting Russia in its attack or interfering with Ukraine’s goods. DJI spokesperson Adam Lisberg said the company doesn’t sell its consumer drones to the military and that using its devices in battle isn’t suitable. A request for comment from the Russian Embassy in Washington was not returned.
BRINC has sent ten drones to Ukraine and sold around 50 more to help with the country’s defense since last month. According to Chief Executive Blake Resnick, helicopter pilots and members of Ukraine’s State Emergency Service use them for search-and-rescue and information collecting operations. According to Skydio CEO Adam Bry, the company provided dozens of drones to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, and sold hundreds more to non-governmental groups and states that support Ukraine. A full-time workforce at the firm is dedicated to supplying Ukraine with drones.
BRINC’s CEO, Blake Resnick, claimed his business purchased back all of its drones from distributors in March and gave them to Ukraine.
BRINC claims that its tactical drones use technology that makes tracking them difficult for Russian systems.
After years of taking a back seat to DJI’s dominant sales in the civilian drone market, which has left little room for another player, U.S. startups are eager to demonstrate their technology in active conflict to drum up more business, venture capital funding, and U.S. government support, according to drone industry leaders and consultants. Over a half-dozen American entrepreneurs have announced that they have given or supplied drones and drone-defense systems to Ukraine, assisting in the country’s defense with reconnaissance, information collection, and the capture of photographs of war crimes.
According to a representative for Aerorozvidka, a nongovernmental group that supplies Ukraine’s security and military forces, is among those purchasing Skydio drones as an alternative to DJI. Taras Troiak, a Ukrainian drone dealer, has built a fortune selling DJI drones from his stores in Kyiv and Lviv for years. He purchased a Skydio drone for testing purposes and said that he intends to acquire more to replace some of his DJI inventory that he had donated to the military. He and DJI are no longer friends.
Mr. Troiak stated of his drone selling firm, “All future acquisitions will not be Chinese drones.” Mr. Lisberg of DJI refused to comment on a dealer disagreement.
Several DJI AeroScopes, which are drone-detection systems that identify and track other drones and their pilots, have failed to identify and track other drones and their pilots, according to Ukrainian government officials and Mr. Troiak. These AeroScopes were stationed around the nation, protecting crucial infrastructure in certain circumstances. Several of these systems, according to Ukrainian government officials and DJI, did not turn on at the start of the fighting. As a result, some Ukrainians claim that DJI tampered with the systems to enable Russian drones to fly unnoticed due to geopolitical considerations.
After almost two months of fierce conflict, Russia has upped its bombardment of Ukraine’s second-largest city. Yaroslav Trofimov of the Wall Street Journal writes on the horrific situation in Kharkiv, where inhabitants are surviving on minimal food and sheltering in basements. Associated Press/Felipe Dana photo
Mr. Lisberg said that the firm was aware that some of Ukraine’s AeroScopes were malfunctioning before to the commencement of the conflict and was working to correct them, and that the company had never tampered with its equipment.
According to Ukrainian authorities, the Russians have successfully employed the same AeroScope equipment to target Ukrainian drones and pilots. According to a report from Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, the Ukrainian government claimed this month that “the corporation assists the Russians in their assaults.”
According to sources familiar with the situation, Ukrainian military have been warned not to link DJI drones to Wi-Fi or mobile networks. According to the Ukrainian government assessment, DJI drones aren’t totally secure and that all DJI goods bought and switched on in other countries should be turned off.
Drone entrepreneurs in the United States claim that their drones are more secure than those used by the military and public safety organizations. The position of Skydio drones and their data, as well as the drones from Teal Drones Inc., which transported 15 drones to Ukraine from its Salt Lake City plant, are shielded by military-grade encryption, according to officials. Mr. Resnick said that BRINC aircraft navigate in flight using lidar—light pulses that enable the aircraft to view the surrounding environment—rather than GPS. These characteristics make it difficult for Russia’s anti-drone defenses to track them.
Fortem Technologies Inc.’s defense drones, which are meant to take down enemy drones in the air, are difficult to detect in flight, in part because they employ radar to locate and fly independently, according to CEO Timothy Bean. According to Mr. Bean, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defensive purchased a cargo from Fortem, and various drone defense systems were delivered this month. According to those familiar with the situation, Dedrone, located in San Francisco, is also transferring its counterdrone devices abroad to be deployed in Ukraine. Aaditya Devarakonda, the company’s CEO, refused to comment.
Questions regarding Ukraine’s employment of American drones and counterdrone equipment were not answered by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
A donated BRINC drone is used to explore an apartment building struck by a Russian missile in Chernihiv, Ukraine. BRINC DRONES VIDEO
Startups are going to great lengths in certain circumstances to get their technologies to Ukraine. BRINC’s CEO, Mr. Resnick, claimed his business acquired all of its own inventory in March from wholesalers who were meant to sell the drones to paying clients, but instead delivered them to Ukraine. He claimed he attended a 15-hour training with Ukrainian pilots and rescue personnel in northwest Poland with his deputy, Andrew Cote, a former Defense Department top commander, and two instructors. According to Mr. Resnick, BRINC drones can be useful in urban fighting because they can fly inside, break glass, flip themselves right side up, and take off again if they are knocked out of the sky.
The controversy over DJI’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis has reawakened long-held US national security worries among policymakers and regulators about China’s ownership of a commercial technology with obvious military uses. Brendan Carr, a senior Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, said the events in Ukraine demand for more U.S. action against DJI.
Mr. Carr said, “Reports of DJI drones being utilized by the Russian military in Ukraine further emphasize the necessity for the United States to take a clear and consistent approach to the potentially major national security dangers presented by this Chinese drone company.”
Officials from the Defense Department said they saw the situation as a chance to raise more federal financing for American drone manufacturers and loosen what they call burdensome rules. DJI detractors in Washington are lobbying for the approval of a measure presented by Republican senators that would put DJI to the Federal Communications Commission’s list of covered organizations, clearing the path for the company’s planes to be barred from utilizing U.S. communications infrastructure.
The Seattle headquarters of BRINC. DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturer, dwarfs American companies in the commercial arena.
Dmitry Tarasov, a senior researcher at BRINC, pilots a drone at the company’s headquarters.
The measure may provide a boost to domestic businesses in the United States. The United States Army is prohibited from utilizing DJI drones under a 2017 prohibition, and former President Trump’s executive order further restricted their usage. According to a data study by Bard College in New York, the Chinese corporation provides 90% of the drones utilized by US public-safety organizations.
“Of course, the real concern here is that ill-thought-out legislation would prevent American public-safety agencies and other useful government activities from making their own decisions about whether or not to employ our goods,” said DJI’s Mr. Lisberg. He claims that the national security worries are unfounded since no data acquired on a DJI device has ever been sent to China.
Because of its innovative technology, which is both simple to use for any enthusiast and less expensive than other models, DJI is regarded as the finest in the market, even by its rivals. DJI developed a new drone in March to sell to public-safety organizations, and it was tested by public-safety experts in the United States.
“DJI drones are unquestionably the most sophisticated drones in the world in terms of form factor,” said Mr. Resnick, who worked for DJI for a year before founding BRINC. “They create wonders.”
According to drone experts and corporate executives, American drones are more costly than DJI drones and may have significant wait periods due to restricted production capabilities and inefficient supply chains. Startups have said that they are striving to speed up manufacturing but are still hampered by a chip scarcity that occurred during the outbreak.
—This essay was co-written by Kate O’Keeffe and Yang Jie.
Heather Somerville can be reached at [email protected]
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The “china buying russian products” is a decision that was made by the Ukrainian government to open their skies to U.S. startups. This decision has allowed American companies to potentially gain access to a new market, and it could also help Ukraine’s economy.
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