How Elon Musk’s Starlink Satellites Make Drone Operations Possible for Special Ukrainian Drone Unit

BY Zacc Dukowitz
30 March 2022

The Ukrainian army’s drone unit, which is called Aerorozvidka, has been using drones to surveil its Russian invaders, tracking their movements and finding the locations of tanks and other key assets.

Once a drone pilot finds a tank or a command truck, they either report its location to another pilot flying a drone carrying an anti-tank grenade, or they destroy it themselves.

We look specifically for the most valuable truck in the convoy and then we hit it precisely, and we can do it really well with very low collateral damage. Even in the villages, it’s possible. You can get much closer at night.

– Ukrainian Soldier

Aerorozvidka has lots of drones—probably hundreds, and maybe even thousands, based on recent reports of drone donations being made to the Ukrainian army.

These drones range from off-the-shelf consumer drones like the DJI Mini, to high quality professional drones equipped with thermal sensors, to large professional drones that have been retrofitted to drop anti-tank grenades.

[Related read: Ukrainian Citizens Called on to Donate Hobby Drones in Fight Against Russian Invasion]

Using these drones, this special air reconnaissance unit is flying as many as 300 drone missions a day. And many of these missions are flown at night, when Russian tanks must remain in place and are vulnerable to targeted aerial attacks.

How Starlink Helps Make Ukrainian Drone Missions Possible

Given the chaos of war, Ukraine is often suffering from power outages, which can make flying a drone difficult due to the intermittent loss of connectivity.

In addition to the outages, the Russian army is also reportedly blocking access to the internet in certain regions.

But Ukrainian forces can stay connected to the internet thanks to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites. By providing a direct hookup, these low-earth-orbiting communications satellites make it possible to fly a drone anywhere.

The Starlink terminals were donated by Elon Musk, who sent a truckload of them after Mykhailo Fedorov tweeted at him asking for help.

In response, Musk sent the terminals and activated satellite internet service for the country.

starlink-terminals
Starlink terminals | Photo shared on Twitter by Mykhailo Fedorov

At the moment, only about 33% of the world has high-bandwidth, low-latency broadband internet—but Starlink is working to change that.

The company already has around 1,600 satellites in orbit, and plans to put almost 40,000 more into space. These satellites will enable high download speeds and low latency almost anywhere in the world.

Starlink’s ultimate goal is to increase coverage from 33% to 100% within the next year. And the Ukrainian’s access to internet that they couldn’t otherwise get is a powerful example of the implications of this kind of connectivity.

But it’s not just soldiers that are using Starlink. Regular commercial drone operations stand to benefit greatly from the ability to connect to the internet from anywhere.

unleash-live-starlink
Credit: Unleash live

For example, late last year we wrote about a power line inspection done in Australia by a pilot located 124 miles away that was made possible because of Starlink.

In addition to getting internet from Starlink, the mission was supported by live streaming and remote piloting enabled by Unleash live, an A.I. video analytics and live streaming provider.

Outpouring of Support for Ukraine in the Form of Donated Drones

Aerorozvidka has been getting many of the drones it uses for its daily missions from donations.

From around the world, both governments and civilian volunteers have been rallying to send drones to Ukraine.

global-drone-donations-ukraine
Credit: Finnish volunteer group

Here’s a list of just some of the drone-related donations that have been made over the last few weeks:

  • In Canada, the government has sent cutting-edge surveillance cameras made for use on military drones to Ukraine.
  • In Finland, a volunteer group raised over $57,000 to buy and hand deliver 140 DJI Mavic Mini drones to the Ukrainian military to help with their reconnaissance efforts.
  • In the Netherlands, a volunteer group called Eyes on Ukraine is sending 187 DJI Mini 2s to be used for aerial surveillance, and to record the actions of the Russian military as evidence of possible atrocities committed. The group plans to continue sending drones “until there are no more drones to buy, or when the Ukrainians indicate that their demand is met.”
  • In Taiwan, a private company called XDynamics Taiwan has announced plans to donate 10 of its Evolve 2 drones, worth about $35,000.
  • In the U.S., Seattle-based BRINC drones has donated $150,000 worth of drone technology to the Ukrainian Emergency Services and Hartford-based Aquiline Drones is donating 40 drones to help.
  • In Wales, a member of the national legislature named Mick Antoniw of Ukrainian descent sought to raise over $56,000 to buy drones for Ukraine and ended up raising over eight times as much. The money was reportedly used to buy Parrot ANAFI drones, which will “allow medics to identify the injured and fatalities in the rubble and chaos resulting from Russian attacks on civilian buildings.”

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