Ukraine and Russia are rushing feverishly to create kamikaze drones by slapping improvised explosives on commercial quadcopters. Taiwan’s new mini drone is a high-tech solution to this problem
Small, commercial quadcopter drones are having a surprisingly large effect on the battlefields of Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine are currently racing to transform relatively cheap commercial quadcopter drones into improvised “DIY” small kamikaze drones.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration vowed in February that it will enforce arms embargoes by sanctioning companies that sell critical technologies to Russia. With the rise in effectiveness of small kamikaze drones in the Ukraine conflict, the focus is now falling on preventing the components of these improvised drones from reaching Russia. This is proving to be a hard task as, according to the New York Times, Russian customs data shows that China has sold more than $12 million in drones and drone parts to Russia since the conflict began.
The companies that produce these commercial quadcopters say they can’t be blamed for where their devices end up once they leave their inventories. Western analysts say it would be very hard to stop middlemen from countries like China, Belarus and Kazakhstan from buying such drones off the shelf and then reselling them to Russia at a large profit margin.
But according to one Ukrainian drone transformer interviewed by the Military Aviation History YouTube channel, commercial quadcopters are less useful than remote control airplanes. He said quadcopters are fast and maneuverable, but they rely on four or more helicopter-style rotors to create vertical lift to fly up and “sideways.” These multiple rotors suck more battery juice and deliver less flying time and less range. In contrast, airplane-like drones use their wings for aerodynamic lift and need only one engine powering only one propeller. This makes the winged drone much more energy efficient, allowing the battery to operate for longer, which means more loitering time over the battlefield and longer strike ranges.
The unnamed Ukrainian drone transformer revealed that, due to supply issues, his unit — called the Angry Birds Squadron — usually have to make do with small quadcopter drones, rather than the preferred airplane-like drones. He said Russian and Ukrainian technicians like himself are currently racing to change as many inexpensive FPV quadcopters as possible into lethal flying hand grenades.
FPV stands for First Person View, as these drones all have small cameras that point in one fixed direction and send their video feeds back to the controller’s video monitor. These video monitors often come in the shape of “virtual reality” headsets that wrap around the controller’s face, thereby allowing the controller to see the video feed without distractions, while keeping the controller’s hands free to allow better control performance.
Once they get their hands on an FPV drone, Ukrainian drone transformers use widely available tools to attach an explosive device and a detonator onto the drone, which in many cases are only around 20 centimeters in diameter. The improvised munitions have to be mounted in a way that makes them detonate on impact. Ukraine’s drone transformers use any explosive they can get their hands on, from packets of C4 plastic explosives fitted with detonators, to the warheads of RKG-3 anti-tank grenades that can penetrate relatively thick armor.
As the cameras on these inexpensive FPV drones are not of great quality, these drone operators need to work with other operators who use more expensive and larger drones fitted with better cameras to find targets on the battlefield. Once a target is identified, the operators communicate via radio to guide the attack drone to the target, which could be enemy personnel or lightly armored personnel carriers.
Russia and Ukraine have both been able to use such small kamikaze drones very effectively, and it has a great psychological effect while footage of such mini-drone strikes have been posted all over the internet as effective propaganda messaging.
Taiwan’s military has looked at the data coming from Ukraine and is currently adding smaller drones to its inventory, which includes a number of larger and more sophisticated drones. On Tuesday, March 14, Taiwan’s National Chung-Shan Institute of Science and Technology unveiled a mass-produced mini kamikaze drone fitted with a relatively large warhead that looks similar to the U.S.-built Switchblade 300 loitering munition.
The new drone is lightweight and fits in a backpack. Like the Switchblade, it comes in a tube that doubles as a launch pod. The device is pushed out of the pod and into the air with a pre-loaded spring, small explosive charge, or air pressure. Once in the air, its wings and propeller unfold and it starts to fly like an airplane drone. The Japan Times reports that, according to the manufacturer, the drone is fitted with electro-optical imaging and infrared sensors for guidance and targeting. It can carry a high-explosive warhead over a range of 10 kilometers and stay airborne for more than 15 minutes. It is designed to attack soft targets like personnel and unarmored vehicles.
The fact that these new drones feature airplane wings and only one propeller means they would have a better range-to-weight ratio than quadcopters, echoing the lessons learned by Ukraine’s drone transformers. The new device’s electro-optical imaging and infrared sensors also indicate that it would deliver relatively clear visual feeds while also having the ability to easily find targets in the dark of night — which would be a huge improvement over cheap DIY drones. Also, by mass-producing and stockpiling these devices before a possible invasion, Taiwan would show that it has learned how useful these devices would be in a future invasion scenario. By preparing stockpiles now, Taiwan wouldn’t have to scramble to find and jury-rig inefficient quadcopters during a conflict — like Ukraine and Russia currently have to do.
Paired with Taiwan’s arsenal of sophisticated reconnaissance drones, these specialized loitering munition drones would have a devastating impact on any troop bottlenecks that would be expected to form on or near Taiwan’s few invasion-prone beaches during an attempted invasion.
Image: U.S. Marine Corps/Cpl. Jennessa Davey, Public Domain
Inset Image: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Tyler Forti, Public Domain