Russia is using drones to target Ukrainian electricity, erode morale
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Despite its steadfast support for Russia in the UN Security Council, you would be surprised if I said China has helped decimate more Russian soldiers and armour than it would have liked. This is all thanks to the indiscriminate use of DJI drones by Ukrainian forces. Since February, over 90,000 Russians have been killed or wounded, according to some estimates.

Since the war started, Ukraine and Russia have been creatively deploying military and consumer drones for surveillance and tactical hits, especially the ones made by DJI, which is based out of China’s Silicon Valley, Shenzhen. It makes some of the world’s favourite pro-consumer drones like the Phantom Series, Mavic, Air, Mini and Inspire Series. The Chinese company also has a wide range of bigger enterprise drones with higher carrying capacity. But in Ukraine, the smaller Mavic range that weighs less than a kilogram has been deployed.   

Perhaps for the first time in military history, a non-military consumer product was quickly adapted and went on to become a tactical weapon of surveillance, strike, and a crucial tool for a war propaganda machine. Today’s ubiquitous technologies and products, including the internet, satellite navigation and digital cameras, all originated as exclusive military technologies. 

For Ukrainians, the Chinese DJI drones have become the first weapon of choice in its campaign to repel the invading Russian forces. The current favourite models for the campaign are the Mavic series, which are lightweight and can fly around 10 kilometres for about 45 minutes. 

These drones may not be a weapon of mass destruction, but they are packed with technology crucial for outmanoeuvring Russian soldiers on the battlefield. All DJI drones have a GPS navigation device that enables precise geo-location tagging. With precise geo-tagging, artillery units could bust Russian positions and equipment with pinpoint accuracy. In earlier wars, it would have taken advanced scouts to locate and relay the location to the unit.

With AI-guided obstacle avoidance systems, these drones could avoid physical obstacles such as trees, buildings and hills and could return home in case of low battery or there is a communication interruption between the drone and remote controller. These devices also record 4K footage of men, equipment and position helping tactical commanders plan their next strike. Even without prior experience some of these drones could be flown immediately out of the box.

Drones have become that simple.  

Ukrainians turned this footage into effective propaganda material. For the first ever time, real war images of soldiers blown to pieces by grenades dropped from drones were splashed on social media that went viral with millions of views. The live war footage has been one of the reasons why Ukrainians were able to craft a propaganda narrative in their favour. If the US Iraq invasion was a war for live television, this was a live war on your mobile phones.

But how did the Ukrainians turn these Chinese consumer drones into grenade throwers? Simple: by improvising them to carry grenades or IEDs by 3D printing an additional contraption on the existing set-up. Some drones could carry 3-6 small pieces of ammunition that could be dropped on the enemy position or equipment. While a single grenade may just maim or kill a soldier, the devastating psychological impact on the Russian soldiers is huge. Similarly, the cost to kill ratio is disproportionately large when a $5 million T-90 tank is obliterated by a $1,000 consumer drone. In the last two World Wars, deep trenches had shielded soldiers from sniper’s line of sight and infantry’s flying bullets. But now tiny drones were staring down, exposing their naked positions. 

While the Turkish Bayraktar-TB2, Switchblade or Iranian Kamikaze drone Shahed-136 are purposed to build military drones, DJI drones found themselves in the grey zone of being adapted as surveillance and military tech. Even before the Ukraine war, DJI was on the watchlist of the US Department of Defense since 2018. In July last year, the drone maker was officially singled out as a “potential threat to national security” and its products were officially blacklisted in October this year along with 13 others on a list of Chinese companies deemed to be closely tied to China’s military. 

Early in the war, DJI was accused of providing user code DJI AeroScope to Russians whereby they could locate the drone and its operators and take them out. Since then, the drone maker has been trying to distance itself and endear itself to the American and European user markets. 

Similarly, the Indian Government has been dithering on banning drones imported into the country. In February this year, India officially banned the import of any drones except for R&D and defence purposes.  

For the public, this could pass off as another of Chinese products falling prey to India’s current policy on some of the Chinese goods. In the public mind, drones pose a security threat, therefore, the ban is a welcome change. But as a long-time user of DJI products, I on behalf of many filmmakers and drone operators will say this: DJI is a world-class product and there is no other product that has revolutionised and democratised filmmaking/content creation over the last decade. It helped us see the world from a different perspective altogether which was only possible with the Hollywood budget. 

The memes around drones are that both the helicopter pilot and the cameraman lost their jobs when DJI drones appeared in the sky. Many like French Parrot, Intel and even GoPro attempted to break into DJI’s dominance. No one has been as good as DJI.

Of late, there have been a lot of talks about Indian startups making drones for India and the world. I am all for it. But as filmmakers and content creators, Indian drone makers are nowhere near what DJI has done for the community. DJI is not just about drones, there is a whole ecosystem of drones, cameras, lenses, gimbals, colour science, focus systems and audio recording devices. In 2017, DJI also acquired a majority stake in famous Swedish camera manufacturer Hasselblad cementing its lead as an integrated drone cum cine gear maker. Forget Indian, not even established global imaging giants like Sony, Arri and Canon have such innovative product portfolios that are aimed at filmmakers and content creators. 

Even if any content creator wants to be an early adopter, I am clueless about their cost, availability, and usefulness. Many of the startups are tilted towards military, agriculture and industrial applications leaving minority content creators in the lurch. It is also easier to make drones that take to the sky but creating an entire ecosystem, it’s a feat that is difficult to achieve. Way back around 2013, when we started flying DJI Phantom 1, a GoPro camera had to be strapped onto the drones. It was wobbly and unreliable. Since then, drones have evolved to almost become autonomous flying machines. As with everything else in life, when the legitimate market shuts down there is always a grey market. You can still pick some models for around 70k at a grey market in Chandni Chowk. But for how long?

So, what are the implications? For content creators, it will be harder to create the cinematic footage viewers have gotten used to. Second, Indian drone makers have a lot to catch up to. Third and most important, such a crucial technology cannot be left to a few pioneering startups to fly up in the air and find themselves a place in the sun. Currently, 100-odd companies are vying for different drone applications. Some may succeed and more than half will fail. To a large extent, the dream of self-reliance in drone tech is dependent on India succeeding in its quest as a semiconductor hub. To succeed, they will have to copy DJI’s playbook of having a visible consumer presence by making themselves indispensable to the creative community while producing enterprise drones to provide them with bread and butter.  

As the war in Ukraine rages on, drone visuals continue to fascinate war strategists, propagandists, and content creators alike. And when the history is written and blockbuster Hollywood war movies are made, American Himars, FGM-148 Javelin, Turkish Byraktar-TB2, Iranian drone Shahed-136 along with China’s DJI drones would find a place in the annals of military history for generations to come.

Mike Sangma is a former journalist, wildlife filmmaker and a DGCA registered drone pilot who has been flying various DJI drones for over the last 10 years.

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