Ukrainian geeks-turned-guerrillas are making front-line drones

For young Ukrainian geeks, making drones – for reconnaissance or destruction – in a house basement near the Donbass front is “new generation” guerrilla warfare.

In the dim light, the 20-somethings busily tinker with electronic components spread out on tables, using laptops and documents while artillery fire booms in the background.

Next to the repair room next door – a laundry room before the war – drones are patched with spare parts from planes damaged “in combat” against the Russians.

Meanwhile, in the garden shed, a 19-year-old nicknamed Varnak turns grenade launcher grenades into drone-dropped bombs.

You just add fins to them and change the detonation system, he tells AFP with a smile.

“I manage explosives here in my department… We work on grenades and make homemade explosive devices,” says the young man, who joined the unit after an announcement on Twitter.

On the miniature bombs he writes personalized messages for the enemy, including “Victory – and happy birthday!” and “People who live without freedom have bad taste”.

Mounted in the house’s garage is an electronics-clad four-wheeled platform on which the team puts the finishing touches on a kamikaze drone capable of carrying an anti-tank mine or any other type of explosive.

Meanwhile, a heavy machine gun waits in the corner to be turned into a robotic shooting station.

– ‘Volunteers’ –

Aktor (“actor” in Ukrainian) was a student at the Igor Sikorsky Technical University in Kyiv when Russia launched its invasion in February. Today he wears uniform and works on “robotics” up to perfect kamikaze drones.

For him, these technologies can make a difference in the conflict in Ukraine, “because the current war … is a new generation war”.

“It is no longer people with weapons who wage war, but robotic vehicles at a very high technical level,” says the 22-year-old.

“Why would one soldier shoot at another when you have a robot that can deliver a ton of explosives to an ammunition depot?” he asks.

The group’s founder and leader, Zmiy (“snake” in Ukrainian), is a bearded veteran of the conflict that began in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, in 2014.

Zmiy, who wears rimmed glasses and a baseball cap decorated with a US flag, says the group includes about 40 men and women.

His core team are veterans like him.

“Everybody else who builds and invents devices has joined us on Twitter. They are volunteers,” he tells AFP.

Not far from their base and less than two kilometers from Russian lines, Mikho, the navigator, and 11, the pilot, are preparing a drone to drop bombs on Russian positions.

Amid a constant artillery barrage, the two men planted a bomb under the drone, a US-made model that retails for around €3,000 ($2,900).

Led by Mikho, 11 watches the Russian positions on his screen. He then releases the bomb, which falls vertically and tumbles down, exploding in a puff of smoke.

The Russian soldiers’ assault rifles immediately crackled. The Russians are trying to destroy the device hovering about 300 meters above them. But the drone returns to the Ukrainian side unscathed.