Ukraine is already using small drones to tremendous effect as tank-killing mini-bombers. An interview on Polish news site Onet reveals plans to make the drones even more effective – smarter, bigger, able to resist jamming and hit more targets at longer range including moving vehicles.
The interviewer talked to two software engineers, some of the thousand or so civilians who joined Aerorozvidka (“aerial intelligence”) from 2014 onwards to help Ukraine’s armed forces with drones and other technical support. This volunteer group started with small consumer drones – still widely used for tactical reconnaissance and directing artillery fire, as well as dropping hand grenades – and later built their own drone, the R-18 octocopter costing just $20k which can carry three 1.3-kilo bombs able to take out tanks. You can see a compilation video of R-18 strikes taking out Russian armor here.
The two engineers, speaking anonymously like most Aerorozvidka members, explained that one of the biggest problems is spotting targets which are under cover or camouflaged. Although the drone operator has a better view than a ground observer, it can be difficult to pick out the shape of a vehicle. Working with a team of several others, the engineers claim to have developed an AI system which is far better than a human operator at spotting vehicles below, and can flag them automatically and relay the exact GPS co-ordinates back to the operator.
Intelligence staff can scan the drone video and verify whether the targets are genuine, and order in artillery strikes in near real time. Or, if the drone is armed, it can attack the target itself.
This capability sounds a lot like a military version of the Australian Sharkspotter, a small drone with advanced machine learning which is far more accurate than a human operator at the task of spotting sharks in beach environments and distinguishing them from many possible confusers such as swimmers, surfboards and dolphins. We are seeing a rapid proliferation of this type of AI-capable drone thanks largely to the introduction of powerful, low-cost machine learning hardware specially for drones. This includes military drone applications like Anduril’s Ghost 4.
In theory a smart drone could easily be turned into an autonomous weapon able to find and attack targets without human intervention, but the Ukrainians seem committed to having a human in the loop for the time being. The temptation to field potentially game-changing technology may be strong, although such a move would likely meet severe international criticism.
Current drone bombers are limited to stationary targets. Typically an R-18 will drop one bomb, and the operator can then see where it lands to ensure the second or third lands dead on the target. This is impossible with moving targets, so new software will, at the touch of a button, switch the drone to ‘kamikaze mode.’ In this mode the drone becomes a loitering munition which crashed into the target, sacrifices itself in the attack. However, losing a $20k drone against a multi-million dollar tank is still a worthwhile proposition . This kamikaze capability is currently under development.
One software upgrade which has already been implemented is a form of optical navigation. This uses data from the drone’s cameras to calculate its location, and is most likely based on a technique known as visual odometry. Even when GPS signals are jammed, the drone can still tell exactly where it is. The developers say this is already being used by Ukrainian Special Forces drone operators.
The existing R-18s can carry a bombload of five kilos to a range of around 15 kilometers. A bigger version currently under development will have four times the payload and a range of 50 km. This will give it a greatly improved ability to strike at Russian artillery units and other forces far behind the front lines, and the bigger bombload means it could hit a dozen or more vehicles in one mission. The tradeoff is that a bigger drone will be much less expendable than the cheap R-18s. This may be why the new drone will also fire missiles or rockets, allowing it to stay at a safer distance from the enemy.
Interestingly, the engineers showed little concern that Russia might develop similar capabilities. They noted that Russia’s inefficient state-owned industries were poor at innovation and development and moved slowly. While the ubiquitous Russian Orlan-10 recon drone is certainly effective – and its 16-hour flight time with a petrol engine is envied by Ukrainians flying drones with a half-hour battery life – it belongs to an earlier generation. The engineers noted that their colleagues were working on captured Orlan-10s, so possibly new jammers or other countermeasures are on the way. On the Ukrainian side, the huge variety of locally-developed drones makes it impossible to build one system that could counter all of them.
Ukraine already leads the world in small anti-tank drones. But the next generation is will ratchet up several notches. Russia’s army, with increasingly aged tanks pushed to the front line is in the cross-hairs and the outcome may be significant not just for Ukraine but for the future of warfare. Tanks may not be obsolete yet, but their nemesis might be coming.