Ukraine War Is Being Watched From the Sky

Widespread use of civilian drones brings serious risks with it.

By , an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles, technology in humanitarian aid, remote sensing, spatial data, and data policy and ethics.
An armed man shoots at a blurry image in the sky.
An armed man shoots at a blurry image in the sky.
A Ukrainian service member shoots at a Russian drone with an assault rifle from a trench at the front line east of Kharkiv on March 31. Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images

As a Ukrainian soldier’s consumer drone watches from above, Russian soldiers appear to shoot a civilian point-blank after he emerges from his car with his hands in the air, and he slumps down to the ground. A drone flown by a BBC reporter hovers over the bombed-out Irpin bridge on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, as it films refugees navigate tangled metal and cement over rushing water. Just hours before, Ukrainian forces were filmed shooting at a similar consumer drone in the same area, which they feared Russia was using to direct artillery fire toward civilians.

Later, in Ukraine’s stricken city of Mariupol, a consumer drone flown by Ukrainian forces captures a high-definition aerial perspective of a direct hit on a Russian tank. After the initial flash, the smoke clears to reveal a dead man and another crawling away from the wreckage, and then a second later, the body of yet another Russian soldier blasts into the frame from the right, apparently propelled by another hit on a tank just off screen. This drone footage—just one of many similar drone-collected clips coming out of the war—is raw, harrowing, and unforgettable. It’s an angle on war the world has barely seen before.

Although Ukraine isn’t the first social media war or the first conflict where small, cheap consumer drones have come into play, it’s the first conflict to be so comprehensively documented by small drones—aircraft piloted by everyone from soldiers on both sides (albeit, more so by Ukrainians) to reporters and curious civilians.

As a Ukrainian soldier’s consumer drone watches from above, Russian soldiers appear to shoot a civilian point-blank after he emerges from his car with his hands in the air, and he slumps down to the ground. A drone flown by a BBC reporter hovers over the bombed-out Irpin bridge on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, as it films refugees navigate tangled metal and cement over rushing water. Just hours before, Ukrainian forces were filmed shooting at a similar consumer drone in the same area, which they feared Russia was using to direct artillery fire toward civilians.

Later, in Ukraine’s stricken city of Mariupol, a consumer drone flown by Ukrainian forces captures a high-definition aerial perspective of a direct hit on a Russian tank. After the initial flash, the smoke clears to reveal a dead man and another crawling away from the wreckage, and then a second later, the body of yet another Russian soldier blasts into the frame from the right, apparently propelled by another hit on a tank just off screen. This drone footage—just one of many similar drone-collected clips coming out of the war—is raw, harrowing, and unforgettable. It’s an angle on war the world has barely seen before.

Although Ukraine isn’t the first social media war or the first conflict where small, cheap consumer drones have come into play, it’s the first conflict to be so comprehensively documented by small drones—aircraft piloted by everyone from soldiers on both sides (albeit, more so by Ukrainians) to reporters and curious civilians.

I’ve been watching drone videos from the war in Ukraine ever since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, tracking and mapping each use in an ever-growing spreadsheet and map. These drone pilots’ creativity, skill, and bravery is fascinating. It also makes me worried for their safety. The legal status of drone pilots, even civilians, in a war zone is deeply uncertain—and attempting to bear witness remotely may mean risking their own lives.

Small consumer and homemade hobby drones began to pop up in battlefields around the world soon after the introduction of the inexpensive Chinese-made DJI Phantom drone in 2013. The Islamic State famously used them both for surveillance and to drop small explosives on their enemies. Ukraine also got into the small-drone game early. After Russia invaded Crimea and the Donbass region in 2014, Ukrainian drone specialists (many of whom started as hobby model-builders) began to work closely with the country’s armed forces—building their own drones and constantly experimenting with military, home-built, and inexpensive consumer drones in border skirmishes.

Today, while armed Turkish-made Bayraktar systems have attracted much of the world’s attention (and even a theme song), much of the high-resolution aerial footage coming out of Ukraine appears to be shot by relatively inexpensive and much smaller consumer-grade drones, mostly those made by China’s DJI company.

But there are also direct offensive uses. The Aerorozvidka unit recently took credit for using small drones to arrest the progress of Russia’s infamous 40-mile long mechanized column outside of Kyiv: they flew the thermal-sensor equipped drones at night and dropped lightweight bombs on the convoy. Ukrainian soldiers regularly post drone videos on official military Facebook, Telegram, and Twitter pages, demonstrating to the world how they use small consumer drones to better position their artillery strikes. Famously, a woman in Kyiv took out one small drone, possibly flown by looters, with a jar of pickled vegetables. People from outside of Ukraine have been getting involved too: They’ve donated hundreds of consumer drones to Ukrainian troops, ensuring they have a steady supply of eyes in the sky.

As I’ve watched this sea of footage from Ukraine, one thing has become apparent to me as a long-time observer of civilian drones in conflict and disaster: We haven’t talked nearly enough about the risk that people potentially put themselves and others in by flying small drones on or near the battlefield.

The biggest problem facing combat zone consumer drone pilots is that of distinction, one of the fundamental principles in international humanitarian law. Per the International Committee of the Red Cross, it provides that parties to an armed conflict must “at all times distinguish between the civilian population and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives and accordingly shall direct their operations only against military objectives.” Doing this with aircraft is pretty well established under the rules of warfare or international humanitarian law. You can mark aircraft with symbols, pilots can identify themselves via radio, and aircraft can be equipped with electronic IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) systems, among other strategies.

These approaches largely don’t translate to small consumer drones, as I’ve written about in the past, both in Foreign Policy and with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Small consumer drones are largely identical on the ground, and they’re even harder to tell apart in the air. Consider the video I mentioned above, where Ukrainian soldiers were shooting at a drone hovering above the Irpin bridge. Although it’s entirely possible that it was being flown by Russians, there was really no way the Ukrainians could know for sure from their vantage point, short of taking out either the drone or the pilot. Nor would it be easy to tell that drone apart from the drone that BBC journalists flew in the exact same location just a couple days later—which, as far as I know, didn’t get shot at. It’s a situation that’s ripe for mistaken identity and can be deadly, considering that shooting at a drone (or any other small object in the air) represents considerable risk to people on the ground, including the pilot and other bystanders.

While drone pilots on the ground can identify themselves via radio, the drone itself can’t respond to similar demands if someone spots it. Although some companies do produce IFF and ADS-B transponders for small drones (including China’s DJI drones), they’re still relatively rarely used. Some nations explicitly prohibit small drones from using ADS-B Out—a technology that broadcasts information about an aircraft’s GPS location, altitude, ground speed, and other information to compatible receivers once every second—to broadcast where they are to other aircraft and avoid excessive signal traffic. And although various remote identification standards and technologies are being developed around the world to help integrate small drones into regular air traffic control systems, they’re still very much under development.

These technical difficulties mean that consumer drones have a distinctly uncertain status under international humanitarian law. Civilian drone users, like journalists and curious citizens, also may not be aware of the implications of their actions. In one recent video from Ukraine, an international correspondent filmed himself flying a drone to observe the location of Russian forces while letting Ukrainian soldiers crowd around the viewscreen. Would that action cause him to—at least, in the moment—lose his civilian status and become a valid target for attack under international humanitarian law, as he arguably is sharing useful intelligence with one side? Ukraine has proven that the world needs clear standards and guidelines for using consumer drones in compliance with international humanitarian law.

Some people assume that because small drone pilots are at a distance (usually a maximum of 6 miles) from active fighting, they’re largely safe. That’s wrong.

After the Islamic State and others began to weaponize consumer drones in the years following 2013, governments, militaries, and private industries launched a feverish global rush of research and investment into counter-drone technologies—a rush that Russia, in large part due to its involvement in Syria, has been very much part of. Consumer drones like DJI products aren’t explicitly designed for military use, as the company hastens to remind users: They also aren’t particularly secure.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s monitoring drones, many of which were small consumer models, were regularly signal-jammed (and shot at) during their flights over the Donbass region before this year’s war.

Hackers have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to take control of small drones and access the information they collect and send back to their often smartphone-enabled controllers—including one bizarre 2018 incident where staff on Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich’s yacht attempted to use an anti-drone device to confiscate a curious tourist’s DJI Phantom.

Drones communicate with their controllers on the ground using relatively easy-to-detect radio signals, which some modern counter-drone technologies use to locate both the drone and the pilot. In an unauthenticated video posted to Facebook by Ukrainian drone seller Taras Troiak, a DJI drone pilot appears to be attacked by a grenade after landing his drone, which strikes the exact area where the drone hit the ground with suspicious accuracy. Although there’s no confirmation of what actually happened, many observers suspected that the radio signal from the pilot’s drone led his attackers straight to him. While most countries outlaw detecting drones by decoding this data, it’s probably safe to assume that Russians have access to electronic warfare devices that can find drone pilots’ locations.

Since 2017, DJI has been getting around this decoding restriction by selling its own drone-finding and signal-decoding technology called AeroScope, which is compatible only with their own products. It’s effective because all modern DJI drones broadcast signals with information on the location of both the pilot and the aircraft that Aeroscope devices (which come in both stationary long- and portable short-range models) can interpret—a functionality that, importantly, DJI says it can’t turn off (though it’s possible for technically savvy drone users to hack or spoof it). Widely used by law enforcement and sports arenas, it has considerable utility on the battlefield.

For now, DJI appears to be maintaining a neutral position, as evidenced by DJI’s reply on March 17 to a direct request by Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov that the company block all products purchased in Russia. The company reminded him that their products are “designed for civilian use” and that the visibility built into them “is one more reason why using them for military missions is inappropriate.”

After the start of the war in February, Troiak accused DJI of intentionally disabling AeroScope on Ukrainian territory. DJI has thoroughly denied the claims, saying their staff are working with Ukrainian users to resolve the problem, which they believe may be due to connectivity challenges. The company also denies that it has the ability to view global drone activity or to submit the location information that Fedorov asked for, although there are indications it may have, at least, had the ability to track where its drones were globally in the past, and users can voluntarily choose to submit their flight logs to the company. If such data did exist, it would be an exceptionally attractive prize for combatants on either side of the conflict.

The AeroScope dust-up brings us to another big problem: Most inexpensive consumer drones are made by Chinese companies. And the war in Ukraine has placed China—which shares goals and viewpoints with Russia—in a deeply delicate, awkward political position.

Modern drone companies, like most tech companies, wield considerable control over their products even after they’ve been sold to the customer. All DJI drones are shipped to the customer with geofencing technology, which means that the drone won’t work in certain sensitive areas around the world, including much of Washington and Tiananmen Square. During the height of the conflict with the Islamic State in Syria in 2015 and 2016, DJI quietly placed a geofence on its products in that region.

Now, many observers are wondering, understandably, if DJI will geofence their products in Russia or Ukraine. While DJI told Fedorov that it would be willing to arrange a blanket geofence over Ukraine upon formal request, the company emphasized that it would “apply to all DJI drones in Ukraine,” not just those flown by Russian forces. My prediction: Don’t hold your breath. Although DJI has publicly claimed that the Chinese government doesn’t have input into its decisions, there’s evidence that this isn’t the case. However, both DJI and China likely have little interest in or appetite for being accused of favoring either Ukraine or Russia in the current conflict. Nor does the company wish to make any moves that imply it endorses its products being used on the battlefield: In its reply to Fedorov, it emphasized that its products are “designed for civilian use” and that the visibility built into them “is one more reason why using them for military missions is inappropriate.”

As DJI would doubtlessly argue, introducing a geofence would create political problems for China without necessarily making much of a difference on the battlefield. Geofences aren’t infallible: They’re intended largely to deter people who are technically incompetent or who are simply ignorant about drone regulations in their area. Plenty of companies offer hacks and means to get around them. One such company is even offering its services for free to people who can prove they’re in Ukraine or Russia.

Ukraine has proven that small drones are a massively useful tool for all actors in modern war zones: They will be with us for a long time to come. Pilots can take some measures to protect themselves (like making sure the mobile devices that connect to the drone are always in airplane mode) but they need to know that these measures exist. It now falls to the international community to ensure that the people who use them in times of war—civilians and combatants—fully understand the risks that they take on with their use.

Faine Greenwood is an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles, technology in humanitarian aid, remote sensing, spatial data, and data policy and ethics. Greenwood's current research work centers on civilian drone technology and the new opportunities and operational and ethical challenges that drones and the spatial data that they collect presents to people affected by disaster and conflict.

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