Drones on the frontlines
In Ukraine, unmanned aircraft vehicles are weapons of propaganda. Volunteer organisations have altered drones to supply them to the army in Kyiv
September 28, 2023

Raffaele Angius
Lorenzo Bagnoli
Riccardo Coluccini

«#Ukraine: [inflicted] Finally a first loss of a Russian T-62M tank in the South.» This was tweeted on 6th July 2022 by Ukraine Weapons Tracker, an account that tracks the use and capture of armaments in the ongoing conflict. The attached video, which was widely circulated, had been shot with a drone. In this case, the unmanned aircraft vehicle (or UAV)) did not only provide the POV: it was also the tool with which the Ukrainians destroyed the enemy tank.

In the first shot, the old Soviet-era military vehicle looks almost like a model, until the drone suddenly gains altitude as it drops a homemade bomb directly into the open hatch of the wagon. The suitably modified quadcopter releases a bait bomb – a small torpedo-shaped bait container typically used in carp fishing. Inside the contraption, instead of worms, is a hand grenade, designed to go off as soon as the bait bomb hits a surface. The images are not the most spectacular: this old type of tank, which has given the Russian army a hard since it was first deployed on Ukrainian territory, contains no ammunition or explosive in the cabin: for this reason, instead of a thunderous explosion, the video merely shows a tremor and then smoke escaping from the hatch. But whoever was inside could not have survived.

By now, we are all familiar with commercial drones, which are sold even in supermarkets at very affordable prices. In Ukraine, where they have been repurposed to be used against the Russian invaders, they have made their way into the hearts of those who see them as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, like David against Goliath. These UAVs have helped to achieve some tangible results against the Russian army, which proved completely incapable of dealing with them, at least at an early stage. But in addition to their offensive capabilities, they have proven especially effective as instruments of propaganda.

The investigation in a nutshell
  • Drones are often described in the international press as having changed the conflict in Ukraine. They have certainly changed the role of some civil society organisations
  • Dignitas Foundation is one of several NGOs that have chosen to support the Ukrainian army in every way. The foundation supports the purchase of civil technology, mainly drones, and participates in the creation of a drone manufacturing industry in Ukraine. A government project, Army of Drones, also serves the same purpose
  • According to two experts on UAVs, Ivan Zaccagnini and Kerry Chávez, in addition to their role on the battlefield, drones have also served propaganda purposes: showing success and instilling fear
  • There are military and commercial drones. The former are much more expensive and are equipped with more specialised technology; the latter are very simple to use but can be used for reconnaissance and, when altered, can also become small weapons
  • Last year’s fundraising campaign went very well, but volunteers fear that the numbers will be much lower in 2023

«Unlike modern military drones, which are very expensive and large devices, commercial drones are low in price and have a small mass, which makes them undetectable by radar», Ivan Zaccagnini, a doctoral student at LUISS University and the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels, and the author of several articles on the use of drones in conflict areas, explained to IrpiMedia.
«Although the same name is generally used for both types, a clear distinction must be made between room-sized military units that cost millions of dollars each, and the more innocuous commercial drones. The latter are much smaller and cheaper devices that can be deployed in large numbers for little overall expense. And even if they do not constitute a revolution, they have a multiplier effect on the forces already in the field. Ultimately, it is difficult to imagine that the use of civilian drones could decide the outcome of a battle, but their use certainly has a psychological effect both on the opposing forces and the observers».

Successful operations carried out with drones are easier to share on social media, which has the dual effect of uniting those who support the Ukrainian cause and intimidating the Russian enemy.

An army of volunteers

Liuba Shypovych is dressed as a soldier and knows the Ukrainian army as if she were part of it. And yet she is not. She is the co-founder of two humanitarian organisations supporting the war effort in her country, Ukraine. The first is called Razom and is based in the United States, where Shypovych has lived for years. «Eight years ago – she explained at a meeting with journalists in Kyiv organised by the n-ost foundation in May – the organisation was most focused on providing [in] humanitarian aid to Ukraine, educational, cultural projects support, medical education and so on».

Those were the years after the invasion of Crimea, with the Donbass region as the hotspot. It was the beginning of the first phase of the war, a low-intensity one. Then came the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022: «We realised that we could not focus on humanitarian aid, but had to help the troops, because in 2022 it was not yet a professional army. It was made up of ordinary people like all of us, who were trying to defend their country». Dignitas, Shypovych’s second foundation after Razom, was then established with the aim of delivering «dignity to men and women who defend Ukraine on the battlefield», their website reads.

In addition to purchasing drones, Dignitas trains drone operators. «We have trained around 50,000 people in the use of civilian technologies in wartime: drones, radar, smartphones, tablets», Shypovych added. Working directly with a national army, even one made largely of volunteers, is a difficult choice for an NGO: «We are living through the biggest war since WW2, and I don’t think any country is capable of resisting Russia on its own», she explained. «Russia has a population eight to ten times larger than Ukraine; economically and militarily, it is more powerful. […] If there were no civilians ready to take up arms voluntarily, to move to provide the army with tactical medicine [emergency medical assistance], communication tools and even weapons, we would not have been able to resist. We can all testify that at the beginning of this full-scale invasion, no European country was ready for a war of this size».

There are several entities like Dignitas in Ukraine. Come Back Alive and Serhii Prytula Foundation also participated in the meeting, representing the sector. They call themselves charities, a concept that in Western countries is also often linked to non-governmental organisations. Since February 2022, Ukrainian charities have been collecting equipment and providing training for those at the front. While Dignitas has focused only on civilian technology that can be repurposed for war, other foundations have made different choices.

The tablet of a soldier in the 252nd “Storm” Battalion – part of the 112th Independent Brigade of the Territorial Defence Forces – shows a barren countryside with two rows of trees, dotted with black and white spots. They are signs of explosions, bombs and artillery shells. In this desolate scenery are Russian soldiers, hidden and unaware of being watched – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

Maksym Lymansky is a journalist and spokesperson for Come Back Alive, the largest foundation supporting the Ukrainian army. In June 2022, it was the first to obtain a government licence to purchase military armaments directly from suppliers. It functions, in essence, as a procurement office for the Ministry of Defence. It has direct contacts with arms manufacturers, especially in Ukraine. «We are always focused on the technical devices which are important for Ukrainian military drones: radio stations, tablets, smartphones, specific software for artilleries or drone operators», he explained. «We’ve also bought some 1,500 machine guns for the Ukrainian army and 200 mortars for the Territorial Defence Forces.»

The transformation of Ukrainian NGOs into suppliers of fighting tools (which according to those involved is necessary in wartime, and took place under the auspices of the government) was made possible by the fact that much civilian technology proved useful on the battlefield. «Who was behind the supply of these civilian technologies to Ukraine is the real new element of this conflict», Zaccagnini explained.

Drones are a tool that has helped Ukrainian citizens resist the invasion. They are not just unmanned kamikaze planes, as they have often been perceived during past wars. They are also useful for reconnaissance, they can drop small bombs, and help the army to communicate their successes. At least, this is the version given by the government. It is not the first time that the fundamental contribution of drones has been discussed but, according to Ivan Zaccagnini, it is an exaggeration to regard drones as something that can change the outcome of a conflict. The PhD student is co-author of a paper in English titled “Why Drones Have Not Revolutionized War”.

The photo report

The photographs accompanying this article were taken by Marco Cremonesi, a photographer with the Memora collective. In February 2023, Cremonesi followed a group of drone operators in the Donbass region of Ukraine. By mid-June, Ukraine began a counteroffensive in the south of the country.

Donbass front. It is just after 7 a.m. A young soldier gets dressed in a room used as a dorm and common storage room. The wall behind the camo jackets, helmets and duffel bags is covered with Cars-themed wallpaper. The battalions are divided into teams that find accommodation and shelter in the homes of civilians evacuated from the combat zone – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

An army of drones

Ukrainian drones are used by the battalions of the Territorial Defense Forces, a self-organised corps of fighters, as well as the regular army. They have even become part of the country’s film imagery: Butterfly Vision is a film by director Maksym Nakonechnyi that tells the story of Lilya, a drone operator who was released by the Russians (we wrote about it in the 15 May 2023 issue of Digest). Often, in messages and videos recounting their feats, drones are called birds by the government.

As we mentioned earlier, UAVs can be military or commercial. The former have reconnaissance or attack functions, resemble warplanes and are used in much the same way. A military drone, according to our estimates, has a life cycle of a week before being inhibited or shot down, which became even easier when Russia brought in electromagnetic devices designed specifically to sabotage the operation of military UAVs. Then there are the commercial drones, which can fit in one hand and can be bought for a few thousand euros: they have different functions, but an army of hundreds of them still has a psychological impact, especially when they are also used to drop bombs.

The downside is that commercial drones have a life cycle of around 24 hours before they are shot down. The benefit is that, given their cost, an army of commercial drones still has a lesser economic impact than a single military drone captured or destroyed by the enemy, Zaccagnini explains.

In another room, troops prepare the equipment that will be used during the reconnaissance operation – Photo: Marco Cremonesi
Checking drones, counting batteries, testing radio transmitters – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

They are everywhere, as Kerry Chávez, a researcher at the Department of Political Science at Texas Tech University, pointed out. Analysts were expecting more military drones in the war in Ukraine, but so far they have seen mostly consumer drones. According to Chávez, commercial drones «are essentially “pocket-sized” reconnaissance systems available to any ground unit».

In July 2022, for propaganda and military purposes, the Ukrainian presidency launched Army of Drones, a campaign to mobilise the population both inside and outside Ukraine. The goal was for civilian drones to be modified and deployed on the battlefield (a so-called “dronation”), as well as contribute to the purchase of drones for use in war, both military and commercial.

As of May 2023, Army of Drones had spent 116 million dollars to purchase almost four thousand UAVs (military and non-military) from abroad, in addition to those produced in Ukraine. The fundraising, now in its second year, goes through the online platform United24, which collects all types of donations to the country. This is to ensure complete transparency on the funds collected and where they will be invested. Various sources estimate that Russia shoots down around ten thousand Ukrainian civilian drones every month.

Army of drones

Some of the most popular quadcopters in use by the Ukrainian army

«Every day», Shypovych added, «we receive requests for hundreds of drones from the State». In the first phase of the conflict – which ended at the start of the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine in June 2023 – drones were used primarily for defensive purposes. This summer, however, there have been several incidents where Ukrainian drones have managed to strike targets within the Russian borders, not just in the occupied territories.

According to data released via Telegram by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, in the week between 20th and 27th August, Ukrainian drones struck «31 tanks, 46 armoured vehicles, 65 camps». «The drone army in action», he wrote.

An off-road vehicle carrying an EFT E616P 16L drone. In peacetime, it is used in agriculture; in the Donbas region, it has been repurposed to drop mortar shells on enemy targets – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

Ukrainian military drone manufacturers

The Dignitas Foundation has two departments dealing with the purchase of commercial drones: one buys in Ukraine, the other abroad. At the beginning of the invasion, the only supply was from abroad, and even today the components do not come from Ukraine. This is why «we have to continue advocating for simpler import rules», says Shypovych, and as early as June, the government simplified the taxation and licensing system for the import-export of drones. Poland has been very cooperative in this regard: for the export of dual-use goods – all those that have both military and civil applications, including drones, surveillance systems and spyware – there is a cumulative licence that the importer only has to obtain once, and remains valid at least until the end of the war.

On the Ukrainian front, Dignitas has helped create a domestic market, including a military one. «Some say there are hundreds of manufacturers; I think, more realistically, dozens», Shypovych said. It is difficult to get an accurate idea: Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters in March 2023 that the government was working with 80 Ukraine-based drone manufacturers. However, during a conference one year before the launch of Army of Drones (July 2023), Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said more than 40 companies had sealed contracts with the government for drone production, Ukrinform reported. At least two drone manufacturers have been described as «game-changers» in the press: UA Dynamics (The Punisher drone) and One Way Aerospace (AQV 150 Scalpel drone).

A Chinese-made DJI Mavic 3 drone, widely used by armed forces and readily available on the market, sets off. The cold weather limits battery life, and the drones return from each recon flight thinly coated in ice – Photo: Marco Cremonesi
Troops set up and camouflage a Starlink – the system owned by Elon Musk that provides internet connectivity in this rural area, widely used by artillery and drone teams – Photo: Marco Cremonesi
Another Starlink array is set up and positioned to amplify the signal reception for drones – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

The commander of the operation was formerly a TV news media director. When war broke out, he decided to enlist together with his editor-in-chief, who had been in charge of flying drones for the TV channel. For these reasons, the squad of the 251st “Storm” battalion is codenamed “Journalist” – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

At UA Dynamics Ltd, a Ukrainian company with a branch in Poland, the deputy director is Yaroslav Teklyuk, a lawyer who became famous for winning a major arbitration against Gazprom in 2017 for NaftoGaz, Ukraine’s national oil and gas company. In 2019, NaftoGaz obtained $2.9 billion from Gazprom, which was supplying the company’s pipelines at the time, in a settlement obtained through the Stockholm Arbitration Court. The CEO of UA Dynamics is councilman Maksym Muzyka, a member of former president Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party. Muzyka has taken part – first as a volunteer, then as a soldier – in the conflict with Russia since 2014, and since the early years of the conflict has been involved in setting up NGOs that support the military.

One Way Aerospace was founded by investor Francisco Serra-Martins (Serra de Estrela Investments Ltd, based in the British Virgin Islands, and whose portfolio focuses on «renewable energy, technology and social impact in Africa») together with former British Air Force instructor James Earl and engineer Roman Antonov. «While I can confirm that One Way Aerospace does cooperate with the Army of Drones, I’m afraid I’m unable to provide specific details due to security considerations related to the ongoing war. We appreciate your understanding in this matter», Serra-Martins explained via email. He states that One Way’s aim is to help Ukraine maintain its «territorial integrity» and that the contracts offered by the Ministry of Digital Transformation «guarantee equal opportunities and maximum transparency for all bidders, regardless of previous political affiliations».

These are not the only two manufacturing companies that have been covered by the international press in recent months. Lviv-based Twist Robotics was mentioned by the Washington Post as it is trying to apply artificial intelligence to kamikaze drones so that they can also hit moving targets. AeroDrone saw 50% of its shares acquired by Dmytro Shymkiv, a familiar figure in Ukrainian politics: between 2014 and 2018, when Petro Poroshenko was president of Ukraine, Shymkiv worked as Vice-chairman of the Presidential Administration, after years as CEO of Microsoft in Ukraine. He is a member of the supervisory board of the Ukrainian startup fund Kyivstar, founded by VEON, a Netherlands-based telecom services company from which Russian oligarch Mikhail Fridman resigned at the beginning of the conflict. Today, VEON is owned by Canadian and US investors.

The basement smells of mould, but a gentle breeze coming down the stairs breathes oxygen into the darkened room. There is a deadly silence. An old iron workbench with dusty wooden planks serves as a table for military equipment. On the top shelf, dozens of tins of preserves tell of a past life, a different and quieter one – Photo: Marco Cremonesi
«In terms of companies, some will stay in this business, especially if drone development becomes lucrative», Kerry Chávez commented. The researcher is less concerned about drones stacked in warehouses around Ukraine than the future of traditional armaments and ammunition. A new development she emphasises, however, is how both civilians and the military are moving together in Ukraine to push past the limits normally imposed on the arms industry, in the name of supplying soldiers.

Fundraising operations

Future concerns

On the economic side, the foundations’ push to purchase civil technology and armaments was decisive during 2022. «I think that crowdfunding for the army in Ukraine today is part of being a good citizen», explained Maksym Lymansky of the Come Back Alive foundation, «because it is not a question of what the government can do for me, but what I can do to live one day in peace, and not under Russian domination».

Since 2014, Come Back Alive has raised about 200 million dollars for the army through donations. 2023, however, is more difficult. «Last year we raised $70 million outside Ukraine, but that figure has dropped significantly» adds Liuba Shypovych of the Dignitas Foundation. “We have shifted our focus on donations from Ukrainian companies, because private individuals are exhausted: they have lost their jobs, they have lost their homes, they are often displaced». Shypovych argues that the government in Kyiv is too enthusiastic in its telling of the developments of the war. «Abroad there is more focus on post-war reconstruction», she says, «but it is too early to rebuild. We still have to protect our country so that there is something left to rebuild tomorrow».

Between two rows of trees in a barren countryside cratered by artillery strikes and bombs, drone operators glimpse two figures – Photo: Marco Cremonesi
Russian soldiers patrolling the area. On the screen, an explosion can be seen, followed by a blaze – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

Drone operators send the coordinates of Russian soldiers. The artillery receives them and open fire, recalibrate, and fire again. Then they await the arrival of other soldiers to evacuate the wounded, recall the drones, change their battery and set them off again towards the same coordinates – Photo: Marco Cremonesi

Russian intelligence uses different Telegram channels to receive pictures and adjust artillery fire. The price of a target image is around 5 euro. In Ukraine it is strictly forbidden to disseminate photographic material of positions of armed forces and bombing sites. Civilians caught doing this can face up to 15 years in prison. The task of disseminating images is reserved for the press and the Ukrainian army – Photo: Marco Cremonesi



Raffaele Angius
Lorenzo Bagnoli
Riccardo Coluccini


Marco Cremonesi


Giulio Rubino


Lorenzo Bodrero

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