Drone pilots in a dug out

By Joe Tidy

Cyber correspondent

Ukraine says it is rapidly increasing its production of drones as demand grows on the front line.

The government has relaxed import laws and scrapped taxes for drone parts and equipment.

The expansion is being funded by a successful fundraising campaign called the Army of Drones.

More than $108m (£87m) has been raised with the help of celebrity supporters like Star Wars’ Mark Hamill.

As well as buying and building drones for the war, the money is being spent on training new pilots for the front line.

The BBC was invited to a training session for Ukraine’s latest group of drone pilots in a secret location on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Image caption,

Drone pilots are trained in teams of two as navigators and spotters

A dozen teams of pilot pairs flew small drones across a field, searching for markers resembling military targets.

Instructor Slava watched their technique and commented on how to better remain hidden in their makeshift dens in the woods.

“Drones are our eyes, we can see the occupier very well from the top so we can adjust artillery and find and neutralise the enemy,” he says.

Soldiers on both sides of the conflict are also increasingly reliant on smaller and relatively cheap drones that are traditionally used for filming.

Image caption,

The DJI Mavic is one of the most popular hobby drones in the world used for filming

The most common drone seen on the front line is the DJI Mavic which costs less than $2,000 (£1,615).

Last year, its Chinese manufacturer banned exports to Ukraine and Russia insisting its products are “for civilian use only”.

Slava says the ban has made it harder to get hold of the drones but Ukraine has still been able to import thousands.

But he admits they need more and also need to develop new types as they are so often shot down or jammed by electronic weapons.

Organisers of the Army of Drones campaign say they have built or purchased an extra 3,300 drones. Some 400 people have even sent their own hobby drones in the mail.

The fundraising began in July last year to help bolster the country’s fleet and train pilots.

The project is prominent on social media, with the actor Mark Hamill presenting promotional videos and sharing messages to his fans.

Image caption,

Many shops and restaurants are promoting drone fundraising projects inside Ukraine

Other nationwide drone projects are being advertised in many shops and service stations across Ukraine as the government insists drones give its military a competitive advantage on the battlefield.

On Monday, 100 Ukrainian-made kamikaze drones designed to be crashed into enemy targets were sent to Bakhmut in the latest shipment.

In March, Ukraine’s Ministry for Digital Transformation announced what it called “an important step for the development of the Ukrainian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) market”, relaxing and simplifying the procedure for importing components for drones into Ukraine.

Previously, the rules meant that receiving parts like GPS modules or thermal cameras could take 15 days.

Image caption,

Ukraine already made many powerful combat drones but increased production in the last three months

Ukraine also changed its tax code rules so importers of drones do not pay import duty and VAT for drones and their components.

“Drones today are a fundamental technology in terms of the significance,” said Minister for Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov when announcing the changes.

Mr Fedorov has been leading the Army of Drones fundraising campaign. In his government office in Kyiv he proudly displays a prototype of a new secret kamikaze drone being built in Ukraine.

Mr Fedorov makes no attempt to hide the deadly nature of these drones designed to smash into targets like soldiers or tanks.

But like the rest of his government, he refuses to talk about recent drone strikes on Russian territory.

Last month, a drone came down in the town of Kireyevsk, about 400km (249 miles) from the Ukraine border, injuring at least three people in an explosion after it was brought down, Russian state media said.

In February, Russian media reported that a Ukrainian-made drone crashed in the Moscow region, with officials accusing Ukraine of targeting an energy facility.

Image source, Mykhailo Fedorov

Image caption,

Mykhailo Fedorov says drones are giving Ukraine a competitive edge over Russia

Russia has deployed hundreds of drones against Ukraine, particularly with large Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones.

But Ukraine has never admitted to going on the offensive inside Russian territory.

Asked if he would condone drone attacks on Russia, Mr Fedorov said: “I support everything that will bring us victory and stop Russia.”

On his official Telegram account, Mr Fedorov has also boasted of a Ukrainian drone called the R18 that “can fly from Kyiv to Moscow and back”.

The minister denied that he was calling for drone strikes on Moscow, saying: “We have defence forces who plan operations and our task is to do everything we can so that the country has enough UAVs for them to be used for all military purposes.”

The Ukraine Ministry of Defence did not respond to our requests for comment about drone strikes on Russian soil.

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