POKROVSKE, Ukraine — A private in the Ukrainian army unfolded the rotors of a common hobby drone and, with practiced calm, attached a grenade to a device that can drop objects and was designed for commercial drone deliveries.
After takeoff, the private, Bohdan Mazhulenko, who goes by the nickname Raccoon, sits casually on the rim of a trench, as green fields pocked with artillery craters scroll by on his tablet.
“Now we will try to find them,” he said of the Russians.
For years, the United States has deployed drones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Turkish drones played a decisive role in fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 2020.
But these were large, expensive weapons. Ukraine, in contrast, has adapted a wide array of small craft ranging from quadro-copters, with four rotors, to midsized fixed-wing drones, using them to drop bombs and spot artillery targets.
Ukraine still uses advanced military drones supplied by its allies for observation and attack, but along the frontline the bulk of its drone fleet are off-the-shelf products or hand-built in workshops around Ukraine — a myriad of inexpensive, plastic craft adapted to drop grenades or anti-tank munitions.
It’s part of a flourishing corner of innovation by Ukraine’s military, which has seized on drone warfare to counter Russia’s advantage in artillery and tanks. Makeshift workshops experiment with 3D printed materials, and Ukrainian coders have made workarounds for electronic countermeasures the Russians use to track radio signals. The fixed-wing Punisher, a high-end military drone manufactured in Ukraine, can strike from more than 30 miles away.
Ukraine has long embraced drone warfare to try to achieve a technological edge as it fought as an underdog against Russian-backed separatists in the war in the country’s east. Before Russia’s invasion in February, Ukraine’s military bought Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, the most lethal pilotless craft in the country’s arsenal. In a sign of appreciation, one Ukrainian woman named her baby boy Bayraktar.
In a bit of innovative marketing that earns some money too, the Ukrainian company that makes the Punisher drone allows people to pay about $30 to send a written message on the bombs it drops. The ploy taps into people’s anger at Russia, said Yevhen Bulatsev, a founder of the company, UA Dynamics, which donates the drones to the military.
Among the more popular messages, he said, are names of killed friends, hometowns lost to occupation, or people’s own names along with a note saying “hello from.’’
“A lot of people want to express hard feelings,’’ he said. “It’s quite a good thing. It helps people psychologically.”
After Russia invaded, the United States and European allies donated strike and observation drones to Ukraine, including the Switchblade, an American munition that hovers over a battlefield until a tank or other target comes into view, then dives down to blow it up.
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Out in the fields and tree lines of eastern Ukraine, drones have become ubiquitous on the Ukrainian side, outnumbering, soldiers say, Russia’s arsenal of pilotless craft. Drones have almost wholly replaced reconnaissance patrols and are used daily to drop ordnance.
The Ukrainians call the drones buzzing back and forth over no-man’s-land “mosquitoes.” And on a recent, sweltering summer afternoon at a position dug into a tree line of oak and acacia, a drone strike was the only military action, other than distant artillery shelling.
“You don’t always find personnel, but you can hit trenches or equipment,” Private Mazhulenko said as he sent the drone off to find a target. The battery allows it to hover for about 10 minutes.
Private Mazhulenko’s controller beeped. Russian electronic countermeasures had jammed the drone’s signal. On autopilot, the drone tried to fly back to the Ukrainian position. The private regained control and sent it toward Russian lines again.
“Come on, come on, Raccoon, drop it,” Private Mazhulenko’s comrades urged, watching the screen over his shoulder.
The radio crackled from another Ukrainian position that heard the buzzing, and Private Mazhulenko’s group radioed back not to worry — it is “our mosquito.”
A Russian trench came into view. But the signal went down again. Out of battery, he guided the drone back, catching it in the air with one hand, then pulling the detonator from the grenade. Such flights are repeated several times a day.
“Only with technology we can win,” said Yuri Bereza, a commander of the Dnipro-1 unit in the Ukrainian National Guard, whose soldiers run a workshop building small bombs for drones at their frontline base.
Drones are a significant bright spot for the Ukrainian army. Russia has an effective observation drone, the Orlan-10, used to direct artillery fire at Ukrainian targets, but no effective, long-range strike drone akin to the Bayraktar — a notable shortcoming for a major military power. Russian troops also fly consumer drones but have fewer of them, Ukrainian soldiers say.
The Russian army instead leans on blunt force, deploying legacy heavy weaponry like artillery and tanks, and has been less nimble in adapting consumer technology to the battlefield. It also lacks the flow of small commercial drones donated by nongovernmental groups and even relatives and friends of soldiers that have poured to Ukrainian frontline units.
Private Mazhulenko’s steady hand notwithstanding, rigging a hobby drone to drop explosives is a nerve-racking task.
Preparing the grenade to explode at its target requires dismantling safety features. On the most common type of grenade used by Ukrainian drone operators, three safety devices, including a small metal plate protecting the firing pin from accidentally striking the primer, are taken out and thrown away. This is done with hacksaws and pliers in workshops.
Accidents have happened, said Taras Chyorny, a drone armorer working in Kyiv, recalling colleagues who had lost fingers while handling the grenades. He has experimented with various makeshift detonators and settled on a nail molded into Play-Doh kneaded into the shape of a nose cone. The downside: the grenade might explode if dropped while handling.
“It’s better to do it in an atmosphere that is calm” he said of the tinkering.
The end result is a black tube, like a fat cigar. The Ukrainians glue on aerodynamic fins — sometimes made from a 3-D printer — to cause the grenade to drop straight down, improving accuracy. At the front, pilots such as Private Mazhulenko arm and rig the grenade before each flight.
The grenade is carried on a commercial accessory designed for dropping items, such as water balloons or small packages for drone deliveries. The drop is activated by pressing a button to turn on the drone’s landing light.
Small adaptations to tactics, designs of the explosive, flight patterns and launch and retrieval have all improved over the past five months, according to a commander in an Azov unit that flies drones, who used the nickname Botsman.
“There’s a boom in experimentation,” he said. With the risk of drones buzzing over their positions at any time, he said, Russian soldiers, “cannot eat and cannot sleep. The stress leads to them make mistakes.”
One of the larger workshops in Kyiv, called Dronarnia, takes orders online from military officers seeking customized drones, some large enough to drop 18-pound bombs. The group is financed by crowdsourced donations. Other workshops have raffled off kitchenware to raise money.
Ukrainian officials have been flaunting their drone advantage. The country’s deputy minister of digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, hosted a presentation in Kyiv last week of what he called the “army of drones,” showing off an array of donated craft.
It included the Fly Eye 3, a state-of-the-art reconnaissance drone donated by a Polish special operations team and hobby drones of various types donated by people around the world wanting to support Ukraine, including children. All would be sent to the front to fight the Russians, Mr. Fedorov said.
A nongovernmental group, Frontline Care, came up with the idea of selling messages on the six-pound bombs dropped by the Punisher drone. A website allows clients to pay by credit card and enter a message.
Svitlana, an office manager who did not want to disclose her last name out of security concerns, heard about the website through a friend. Clients can donate as much as they like for a message, but a minimum is 1,000 hryvnia, or about $25. Svitlana paid with her Visa card to write “For the unborn children” on a bomb.
She was angry, she said, about the war disrupting her plans to have children with her husband, who is now serving as a soldier. Also, Russian troops occupied her hometown in northern Ukraine.
“For me it’s really personal,” she said. “I never thought I would sponsor a weapon. I really believe that democracy and peace can give us a better life. But now I understand, without weapons we cannot defend our country.”
Yurii Shyvala contributed reporting from Pokrovske and Maria Varenikova and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv.