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From warehouses to the frontlines: How Ukraine's forces are getting drones

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many different high-tech weapons are arriving in Ukraine to help the Ukrainian military fight Russian forces - weapons including Javelin anti-tank missiles and HIMAR (ph) rocket systems. Pound for pound, though, perhaps no pieces of equipment are more valuable on the Ukrainian battlefield than lightweight, remote controlled drones. NPR's Tim Mak tracks the commercial drones being brought in by volunteers from warehouses in the West to the frontlines in the East.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Our journey begins at a secret warehouse on the outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine. Brett Velicovich, a former U.S. Army soldier who is now a drone technology expert, is my guide.

BRETT VELICOVICH: It definitely has a war zone vibe to it, of course.

MAK: Tell me what you mean by that.

VELICOVICH: When you look at this place, it looks like it's been through hell. I mean, this isn't some fancy warehouse in New York City, where everything's perfectly clean and you have these massive operations like some Amazon store.

MAK: Here in this dusty, dimly lit space, volunteers sort through piles of equipment for the war effort. There are boots and uniforms, combat medical kits including tourniquets and chest seals and other humanitarian supplies. But arguably, the most valuable equipment here are small commercial drones packed away in hard cases, like this one here, worth about $10,000.

VELICOVICH: This is a drone that has been authorized for export. So we are able to bring these overseas and actually provide them with thermal night vision technology that is authorized for them to use.

MAK: Velicovich has brought over 200 drones into the country in the past two months.

VELICOVICH: Everything from small hand-held quadcopters that lift off up to drones that can do agricultural work or 3D imaging.

MAK: Most of these drones are then moved from the relative safety of Western Ukraine closer to the frontlines. There, they will end up in the hands of someone like Bogdan, who I met with in the capital city of Kyiv. Bogdan asked to go by his first name only because his position is sensitive and he's an official in a SWAT-like unit for the National Police of Ukraine. He's a drone operator and trainer.

BOGDAN: My country is in danger. My community need to be defended right now. So it's given me power to protect my native land.

MAK: The drones are useful precisely because of how versatile they are. They can be used by civilian authorities to inspect damaged bridges and railways or to film areas damaged by fighting to help plan reconstruction. And they can be used to save lives, sent ahead of a humanitarian convoy to check for violence or for help spotting mines left behind in farm fields. And, of course, they can be adapted for military use.

BOGDAN: Artillery - they are blind without an eyes in the sky.

MAK: He says he can follow groups of infantry.

BOGDAN: Or some vehicles, call them to - don't get them to get in an ambush.

MAK: Bogdan has trained drone pilots all across Ukraine, and he says these pilots are important strategic assets in any frontline area, which also makes them a key target for enemy troops.

BOGDAN: Enemy always try to find drone operator 'cause drone guy can get any information and to send it to artillery, and it will be artillery strikes on your forces.

MAK: A buzzing...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE BUZZING)

MAK: ...Like what you're hearing as Bogdan fires up a drone in his office is an urgent sign of danger on the battlefield, what Bogdan called the modern music of war.

BOGDAN: It's really a bad sign. I see a lot of times then - when enemies see the drone or hear the drone, they run away. They understand that it's a very bad things for them.

MAK: Our next stop, Kharkiv, a city in northeastern Ukraine near the frontlines. On the northern outskirts of the city, the Russian border is just 10 miles away. In the early days of the war, Russian troops tried to encircle the city. They've since been pushed back, though there are still daily artillery and missile strikes in the area. Anatoliy Rusetskiy is the head of a department tasked with intelligence and aerial reconnaissance in the defense of Kharkiv. And he can't say enough about how important drones have been.

ANATOLIY RUSETSKIY: (Through interpreter) Crazy, crazy level of help. Even if they would be able to provide us 300 of them, it wouldn't be enough.

MAK: In Kharkiv, Rusetskiy oversees the use of more than 30 drones they've received from private donations. Most of them are a model called the DJI Mavic 3, a popular Chinese-made drone. The drones are stored in large plastic boxes alongside the unit mascot, a parrot that soldiers have named Mavic as well.

RUSETSKIY: (Through interpreter) We really need those drones. They really make a big impact. At the minimum, they save the lives of our boys. At maximum, they bring the victory closer.

MAK: One way they're trying to bring victory closer is by their ingenuity. Velicovich, the drone technology expert, says he's been blown away by just how innovative Ukrainian forces have been. He's seen them set up 3D printing labs to add weapons to what are otherwise commercial drones. And there's something else they've done. In the early days of the war, he says, Russian forces had technology that could track these DJI Mavic drones and locate its operator. But Ukrainian forces found a way around it.

VELICOVICH: So they created a hack that allowed them to remove part of the system that can be tracked so that when that Russian jamming system is looking for the location of that operator of a drone, it just shows zeros. They don't have any clue where it is.

MAK: While the Russians try to figure that out, Rusetskiy says that the Ukrainians have soldiers whose main job is simply to continue improving existing drones. These small eyes in the sky have an outsized role in this conflict, he said, as he appealed for more private donations. The more drones Ukraine has, he added, the sooner this war ends.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF 9TH WONDER'S "TAO TAO LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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