A pair of former Microsoft staffers are a long way from the shiny offices of the Big Tech giant—they’re holed up in an industrial estate in northern Ukraine building drones for the home front.
It is hoped that unmanned aircraft like those built by Kyiv-based company AeroDrone could change the tide of the war, with the businesses’ creations able to carry up to 300kg and fly several thousand kilometres in certain configurations.
The company is run by Dmytro Shymkiv and Yuriy Pederiy, who met in Microsoft’s Kyiv offices then left to form their own business.
Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, AeroDrone was building crop-dusting craft, but in a massive push to rebalance Ukraine’s military assets against its invaders, have redeployed their stock for tactical efforts.
Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters that companies like AeroDrone are one of more than 80 domestic producers whose drones form a key part of military strategy.
He said the drones can fulfill a wide range of tasks thanks to their cargo-carrying abilities and their travel capabilities, meaning they are “potentially a game-changer on the battlefield”.
In written responses Reznikov added that Ukraine is nowhere near parity with Putin’s forces, saying the Russians too were working on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV).
Determined to stay ahead, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy has pledged a spend of nearly $550 million on drones as well as creating new assault units within his country’s Air Force.
AeroDrone’s work doesn’t come cheap—one aircraft from the company can cost between $150,000 to $450,000. They are worth the price tag, as the UAVs have capabilities including anti-jamming systems which can counteract signal interference from the enemy.
The defense ministry could not comment on which sort of craft AeroDrone is supplying but said a focus of the project is to develop longer-distance drones after Ukraine’s pleas for missiles were pushed back.
However, successful trials have already been completed for craft that can fly up to 3,000km with a state-owned arms company saying in December it had built a drone that could carry a 75kg warhead up to 1,000km.
Inside the drone fleet
The aim of Ukraine’s drone fleet is twofold: reconnaissance and attacking enemy targets. So-called kamikaze drones are being designed to crash into targets and explode, and are now developed to be deployed on land, in the air and at sea.
Taras Chmut, a Ukrainian defense specialist, told Reuters that Ukraine’s drone production capacity could now be “several thousand” a year if supplies continue coming in steadily. Ukrainian officials declined to reveal how many drones they have in their fleet.
Work is also being done to ensure the fleet can continue to expand, remedying issues faced by companies like AeroDrone voicing difficulties around getting parts through customs, as well as other bureaucratic barriers.
Reznikov said processes such as gaining military certification had been streamlined, resulting in lag times of a matter of months instead of a number of years.
To combat delays at the border, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov told Reuters Ukraine was trying to domestically source as many parts as possible.
He added: “We are trying to fulfill our needs in this sector with domestic production, but we realize that it’s unlikely we will be able to fulfill everything.”