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DRONES: Explosive 33-Fold Growth, Innovations, and the Future of War in Ukraine

Does size really matter? It’s no secret that Russia has vast numerical superiority over Ukraine in troops, vehicles, and resources. Yet Ukraine has managed to hold its ground and fend off the enemy. What helps them survive in the battle against this monstrous enemy?

Ukraine doesn’t have thousands of tanks or dozens of massive ships. However, it does have drones. What is the current state of the drone industry in Ukraine? How many companies are involved? Where do they get their funding? And will drones ever replace humans on the battlefield?

DRONES: Explosive 33-Fold Growth, Innovations, and the Future of War in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: Hello, everybody. This is Brian Bonner, host of Ukraine Calling. Today’s program is going to be a winner. We are in the midst of a high-stakes technological arms race, and whoever wins is likely going to win this war that Russia has inflicted on Ukraine. There’s nobody better to talk to because, for the last decade, wherever there’s innovation in Ukraine, Dmytro Shymkiv is either at the center or very close to it. Welcome to the program.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Thank you very much, Brian. Very happy to be here.

Brian Bonner: There’s a lot to discuss in an ever-changing field. I looked on Amazon to see if I could get some recent books on drones, but things are changing so quickly that books aren’t written yet.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Well, there is a very good book. It’s called «The Drone’s War.» It’s probably the most fascinating book about drone history.

Brian Bonner: Is it current?

Dmytro Shymkiv: It’s current. It goes back in history because drones have been around for many years. DARPA developed the first drones for the war in Vietnam, and the first two drones were tested there. Then there was significant development in Israel, followed by a series of events and transitions in the United States with new technology evolving and being used in different perspectives. There was also development in Iran, Turkey, and globally. This is all in the book. It’s a great book.

Brian Bonner: Do you remember who wrote it?

Dmytro Shymkiv: I need to look it up.

Brian Bonner: But it’s a new book? It’s relevant.

Dmytro Shymkiv: I listened to it through Audible a year ago.

Brian Bonner: I’ll look for «Drone’s War» because I know a lot of people are interested in this subject, trying to stay on top of it.

I need to introduce you because you have a great long history, and you’re much younger than I am. You attended Lviv Polytechnic National University, and I know you’re still proud of it because you’re on the supervisory board, as you are of Kyivstar. You have managed many IT companies, were the former head of Microsoft Ukraine, and then CEO of Darnytsia Pharmaceuticals.

And, of course, from 2014 to 2018, you were Deputy Head of Administration in charge of reforms under President Petro Poroshenko for more than four years. You achieved many reforms, not all that Ukrainians wanted, but significant ones. You got a lot of awards, but I’m going to highlight one. When I was the chief editor of the Kyiv Post in 2015, we named you one of the top reformers in Ukraine, justifiably so.

That was spurred on by your efforts to get us out of 2G, which we had been running on for a long time. It took your skill to get us into 3G, which seems like ages ago technologically, and then immediately into 4G. At the time, we said Shymkiv takes a different approach to public service than some of his predecessors: he’s accessible, optimistic, and focused on moving Ukraine out of the Soviet era and into the modern one. You also pushed for more transparency in government, including online access to public information. Greater transparency alone is a strong deterrent to corruption. Wow, we were nice.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yeah, thank you.

Is the drone industry the future of warfare?

Brian Bonner: So I’m just going to set the table because I want to get your thoughts. Some people believe what’s happening in drone warfare since the full-scale invasion is going to revolutionize military spending, where we don’t need big navy ships because they’re just sitting ducks for these Seababy drones.

Others say that their emergence will be kind of a flash in the pan because they’re not going to be dominant because, for every sword, there’s a shield; for every advance, there’s a counter-advance, and then it’ll just be a draw. How do you see what’s happening out there?

Dmytro Shymkiv: We are in a stage where a lot of new technology is being introduced, and we are facing many new scenarios of warfare. Particularly with drones, we suddenly see them not only in the air but also on land and at sea. It’s not a secret that some of these technologies have been around and have been used and developed, but unfortunately, they have not been paid much attention by different commanders.

The famous joke is that the classical killers of flying things are pilots. The same thing applies to ships. There was a great story from Lockheed when they were developing a stealth ship, and the main reason it was scrapped was because there was no bridge. So, a lot of technology and innovation is emerging.

I still believe that big ships, big planes, and big technology will be around. Why? Because they carry different firepower, suppression capabilities, and payloads and create a certain deterrence and pressure on the enemy. At the same time, they will have to look for defensibility. New small sea drones, like Seababy, will be around, and their development will accelerate.

There will be many questions about defense, so the evolution is not only about technology and how it can be suppressed but also about how to bypass and stop it from advancing to your ships, bases, and troops. This creates a nonstop spiral of innovation.

Brian Bonner: A lot of offense and defense. How do we assess who is ahead and who is behind? When two teams are playing football, neither team has to be great; you just have to be better than the other team.

Dmytro Shymkiv: We will see the pace of innovation continuing. Ukraine today represents a non-stop field where the speed of innovation, from version one to version three, is measured in days, months, and weeks, not years. When you implement a solution, you immediately introduce a new version, get to the battlefield, see what works or doesn’t, and make adjustments.

The cycle in Ukraine for a lot of innovation is faster than anywhere else. Including Russia, Russia is also innovating. We shouldn’t underestimate the enemy. Russia has a good engineering school and is directing many of its resources to military production.

Russia has good electronic engineering, as seen in its electronic warfare capabilities. Russia has access to space, and we’ve already seen the deployment of satellites, raising ambiguous questions addressed by the American president and intelligence agencies about Russia’s intentions.

Yes, there are questions about sustainability. The electronic industry in Russia is weak, but it exists. The question is whether they can access the latest innovations in chips and AI capabilities. Would China continue to sell this technology to them in hidden ways? What is the integration and engagement with Iranians and others?

We need to be ready, and the free world needs to be ready with a much higher and faster pace of innovation, making it both innovative and affordable. Russia can bring a lot of inexpensive equipment to the battlefield in large volumes. We need to take this into account because World War II demonstrated that super-professional equipment developed by Nazi Germany could be suppressed by the quantity of T-34s, which were not sophisticated tanks but were produced in abundance.

That’s why we must drive innovation, speed, and technology integration. Many tools available today for innovation in military tech should be implemented in military tech.

Can Ukraine beat Russian numerical superiority?

Brian Bonner: Numerically, Russia is superior to us. I mean, three times the population. And unless we have our Western partners financially, they’re superior. Is this an aspect that Ukraine can win?

Dmytro Shymkiv: First, I think the fundamental principle for us in this discussion is the will of the Ukrainian people and armed forces to fight back. We are not going to surrender; we are going to fight back.

Today, we are demonstrating the development and progress and the ability to stop Russian advancement because of the will of Ukrainian soldiers on the battlefield and the enormous support that Ukraine is getting from our international partners. The United States, Britain, Germany, and many other NATO countries are helping us with technology, tools, weapons, and especially advanced armor. This support has enabled us to stop Russian advancements with precision strikes and targeting.

Brian Bonner: In the camp of West plus Ukraine versus Russia plus China plus North Korea, do you think our side can dominate?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Historically, all empires that tried to cling to their empire have failed. You can look at the 20th century after World War II and many famous cases: Britain, the Netherlands, France, and many other places that had extensions of their empires. All failed.

Brian Bonner: Hopefully, we will put the final dagger into this dying Russian empire.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Absolutely, that’s what I solely believe. But we should be worried about the consolidation of their strong players—the axis of evil, including Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China. There are different political views in the enemy camp.

Brian Bonner: Yes, it is that way, which is odd because China depends on a robust global economy and exports.

Dmytro Shymkiv: At the same time, they decided to support Russia by smuggling equipment and parts to fight Ukraine.

Can drones replace soldiers on the battlefield?

Brian Bonner: They want to help Russia more than they want a stable environment. We digress, but interestingly, you view drones, a significant part of your professional life now, as important but not a replacement for tanks and soldiers.

Dmytro Shymkiv: I became a partner in AeroDrones when the war started. AeroDrones makes heavy-lifting drones. We have two models: one that carries an 80-kilo payload and another that carries a 300-kilo payload. These fully autonomous heavy-lifting drones are the future. There will be many autonomous vehicles on land and in the air.

The question is how you can bring the capability of piloted platforms to unpiloted environments or uncrewed tools. This is one of our tasks and one of the evolving things.

Brian Bonner: And the payload is explosives?

Dmytro Shymkiv: The payload can be anything: explosives, kinetic payloads, rescue missions, or ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance – ed.). There are many scenarios for their use.

Over the last year, we’ve explored many usage scenarios. When the company was founded, we produced classical agricultural and logistical drones. We’ve done the first direct flight between Kyiv and Kharkiv, fully autonomous, to deliver for Nova Poshta (Ukrainian delivery company—ed.).

But the war changed our perspective. Ukraine is a country with many IT companies and engineering talent. Many are re-channeling their knowledge and experience into building weapons to stop and destroy the enemy and protect the country. The amount of innovation happening is amazing.

For example, sea drones have proven that big Russian ships can be kept at bay in the Black Sea for a long time. There will be solutions to attack sea drones, but sea drones are constantly evolving. This leads to an escalation of attack and defense, maneuverability, and different usage tactics. It’s the same with drones: you have big drones and small drones.

From my experience working with the military, a significant portion of any success is knowledge and deep preparation of the missions. Technology is one piece, but the smartness and shrewdness of the military who use the tools are paramount. Even though I strongly believe in robotics and artificial intelligence, the human brain is still the human brain.

On AeroDrones company

Brian Bonner: Before we dive into where the technological race is now, what is AeroDrones’ position in the market? I read that there are dozens of similar companies. Are you in a specific niche?

Dmytro Shymkiv: We are in a very specific niche, focusing on heavy payload, long-range, high-endurance drones. We can carry a lot of stuff over long distances. That was our concept from the very beginning. Typically, you see small drones, like FPV drones, with a flying distance of 15 kilometers or more. Some reconnaissance drones can fly significant distances but carry small payloads, usually at most 20 kilos.

Our niche is anything heavy. If it’s super heavy, it’s us. This creates possibilities for delivering various capabilities for the military. Powerful armor weighs a lot, and if you want to fly somewhere far, you need big tanks and gas that also weigh a lot. You need tools that enable long-distance flights.

Brian Bonner: And your main client is the Ukrainian military?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yes

Brian Bonner: That’s interesting. You probably know where the tech talent is. Are you getting enough?

Dmytro Shymkiv: This is difficult. Ukraine has a lot of talent, and many are now serving in the Ukrainian armed forces. I appreciate and thank them for doing this. Some talents have left the country due to their personal beliefs, needs, family needs, and so on.

A lot of people in the country are involved in developing different technologies. For example, there are more than 200 companies doing drones today. In 2022, when we were getting certification, there were only six companies, and now there are 200.

Brian Bonner: Are they legitimate companies?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yes, they are all legitimate companies. They are certified by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense to ensure their products can be used, procured, and utilized.

Brian Bonner: This competition is a good thing.

Dmytro Shymkiv: It’s competition but also innovation. Think about how many companies are involved, and each company has at least 15 to 20 people at a minimum. Some companies are big, like DeViRo or Ukrspets, which have more than 200 people.

Brian Bonner: Is AeroDrones one of the larger ones?

Dmytro Shymkiv: No, we’re a small one because of our niche, but there are big companies. There is a small cohort of companies, we call them “ancient,” that started in 2014 when the war began, not the full-fledged invasion, but when the war started. A couple of companies were established in 2014.

These companies pioneered the drone business, developing the first drones for the Ukrainian armed forces. There are a few prominent ones, three or four. There were only about 10 companies in 2022, and now there are 200.

Financing of drone industry in Ukraine

Brian Bonner: You mentioned one of the challenges is tech talent. Another is budgetary constraints. Max Boot of the Washington Post wrote that militaries are very conservative and hard to change, especially if they’re not at war. They authorize money for a battleship, and it takes seven years to build it at billions of dollars. We don’t have that time. Do you see evidence that Ukraine is nimble in budgeting?

Dmytro Shymkiv: The Ukrainian budget has limitations. We rely significantly on funding and financial support from our international partners. The Ukrainian budget has to address many needs, and there are different priorities within the armed forces. The Ukrainian armed forces have a big need, and there is still an issue of funding for all these 200 companies—it’s never enough.

I’ve been observing a significant shift in how NATO countries allocate funds and budgets to the military in the free Western world, especially since the beginning of 2023. The budgets are doubling or tripling in size, military complexes are ramping up production, and new funding for R&D is being established. The free world machine is ramping up to counter the axis of evil. Could it be faster? Yes, but it’s moving, and that’s a good dynamic.

Until mid-2023, there was a lot of talk about containing the conflict and seeking peace. Now, I haven’t met any single military person on the international stage who would be pacifying the situation.

Brian Bonner: Unfortunately, we have all these other conflicts breaking out in the Middle East, Korea, and China.

Dmytro Shymkiv: And you always see somebody from the axis of evil here and there, kicking off and trying to provoke the free world. What we’re observing is a direct aggression against the free world.

Brian Bonner: I think we’re going to have to spend trillions more on the military for as long as we can see. It’s not all bad because the innovations that come from that can be applied to civilian life.

Dmytro Shymkiv: If you look at the classical history of military technology, the majority of the things we have today—from mobile phones to the internet, our ability to predict weather and earthquakes, and even significant computing power—were driven by military technology.

Brian Bonner: I wonder why that is, probably because of the life-and-death nature of this competition. If you lose, you’re dead; if you win, you live.

Dmytro Shymkiv: At the same time, looking at this pace of growth in the number of weapons, we, as a world, could have worked on healthcare issues, space research, and scientific research.

Brian Bonner: We could have improved schools and the environment. We could have repaved every road in Ukraine.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yes, but I’m also looking at the global perspective; we could have moved humankind into different capabilities. Yet, many of my colleagues, including myself, spend a lot of time figuring out how to build smarter weapons to kill somebody.

Electronic warfare: how big of a threat it is?

Brian Bonner: Yeah, it’s unfortunate. Listen, break it down simply because I know you can. I’m a layman, and if I can understand it, others can too. I read that because Russia has superior electronic warfare capabilities, we lose or get 10,000 drones shot down or disabled a month. I wonder if that’s still happening. I heard the counter is AI-powered aviation drones that operate off GPS and visual cues without a human operator. What’s the situation there?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Okay, so electronic warfare. Contemporary equipment is designed to rely on navigation signals—similar to how our phones and cars rely on GPS signals from satellites. The world has different systems: European, Russian, Chinese, American and so on. This technology is being used for navigation purposes.

In our devices, like drones, we use a signal on the ground we receive from space. If you can distort or jam these signals with noise or eliminate the reception of that signal, the devices relying on them, like drones, lose their ability to navigate. This is analogous to losing reception in an elevator.

Russia deploys directed solutions over large territories, emitting noise that suppresses satellite signals. As a result, the signal does not reach the drones. Some drones fall, some continue flying, etc.

To address that, there is a so-called anti-jamming solution. This solution deselects noise, similar to receiving a signal from the Hubble telescope. Due to noise, the images we receive also undergo significant distortion in space.

We have deployed technology to distinguish useful information from garbage suppression, similar to what we use with drones. We can talk about CRPA antennas, anti-jamming solutions, etc., without delving into technical terms. The whole idea is to select a good signal from a lot of noise.

Brian Bonner: Are we making progress?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yeah, well, it’s constantly evolving.

Brian Bonner: I read that drone manufacturers are now required to demonstrate that they can overcome Russian jamming.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Absolutely. It’s mandatory for testing from the beginning. Your equipment needs to withstand certain jamming environments. This involves jamming navigation and solutions such as anti-jamming or alternative solutions like optical navigation using computer vision to determine location. Okay, this is one part of electronic warfare.

Another part involves communicating with your drone. A drone can be autonomous without any human connection and perform operations or activities based on its programming or mission.

Brian Bonner: And no GPS?

Dmytro Shymkiv: GPS is there, of course. It has to be there; it needs to navigate. Can it be non-navigating? Yes, it can.

AI and drones

Brian Bonner: AI swarm drone future—is it already here?

Dmytro Shymkiv: AI swarm drones are a technology already developed. A great amount of research was done by a Chinese group of students who published their research. My favorite is a group of drones that fly through a bamboo forest. Just imagine a bamboo forest with six or seven drones going at full speed through the forest as a swarm. Instead of one person controlling one drone, one person controls multiple drones.

That’s talking about the swarm. AI is actually available in the majority of drones. One of the technologies that has enabled us to select a signal from the noise is AI, software-defined radio, and algorithms that learn how noise is created, how noise has a pattern, and how to remove it.

AI is also used in computer vision for navigation or targeting with optical tools. Imagery bypass is also an AI capability. Additionally, AI enables data processing on board the drone. The next level we have not yet reached globally is where drones can cooperate in space like humans and make decisions on board. That’s my ultimate vision.

Brian Bonner: Humans are not involved in that?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yes, robots use sensors and situational awareness to make decisions based on their surroundings. They can learn from the environment and decide on the next step. Today, very often, a pilot or operator guides and controls the drone, giving orders to perform certain actions.

Brian Bonner: And if you have the edge in robotics, you can take out targets better and save lives?

Dmytro Shymkiv: Yes. You can aim better and have more precise strikes, meaning destroying the enemy or the target more effectively. As a result, you gain superiority on the battlefield. This superiority is crucial in war, so other troops can advance or maneuver. The whole idea of war is to force the enemy to surrender or withdraw.

Sea drones warfare and closing remarks

Brian Bonner: Okay, got it. Now, going to the sea, where Ukraine has been very successful. But you talked about this earlier. Eventually, ships will have detection systems that may neutralize these sea drones.

Dmytro Shymkiv: Sure. Initially, drones were not that fast. Now their speed has been increasing. Maneuverability on the sea is not easy due to waves, different weather conditions, etc. That’s all impacting the behavior and engineering of the vehicles.

Ships weren’t designed to expect anything to be able to approach them, which caught them by surprise. But some tools detect objects in the sea. The enemy or, for example, the U.S. Navy, has been implementing such systems. It’s a constant evolution. You can’t say, «Here’s where we are, and that’s it.» Ukrainian drones have been able to put the Russian fleet at bay and destroy many of their ships.

Russia is already developing counterattack tactics. However, Ukrainian developers are not sleeping either; they understand and counter these tactics. The military’s goal is to increase the enemy’s costs with minimal losses on our side. If the enemy has to spend a lot to deter or detect approaching vehicles, we need to consider this.

This is a big equation in military technology innovation.

Brian Bonner: And we’re not going to know who won until the end.

Dmytro Shymkiv: It’s never-ending. It’s about the ability to innovate, produce, ship, and deliver at necessary costs, supported by the financial system and industry.

For instance, producing a sophisticated tool takes five years. We don’t have five years. FPV drones are successful because they’re easy to maintain and operate and create destruction on the battlefield. In Iraq, US Marines wrote about ISIS using simple FPV drones against them. In the war in Ukraine, this has scaled, and drones have become faster.

FPV drones are fast. You need to be a very skilled pilot to operate them. They can carry payloads and be controlled over longer distances, increasing the gray zone between two armies. The more we push the enemy away, the better. If we can reach a distance that artillery cannot, that’s fantastic. We must constantly maintain this distance with different tools, but the idea is like this.


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