Ukraine’s soldiers use cheap tech to hide from Russia’s deadly drones

Ukrainian military practice operating a DJI Mavic 3 quadcopter drone on January 18, 2023, in Paraskoviivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine.

Ukrainian military practice operating a DJI Mavic 3 quadcopter drone on January 18, 2023, in Paraskoviivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. Viktor Fridshon / Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images

But the makers of lifesaving drone detectors can’t keep up with demand.

On Ukraine’s frontlines, how fast you can spot a buzzing enemy quadcopter can determine whether you survive an imminent artillery barrage or an attack by the drone itself. That’s driven intense demand for the low-budget drone detectors cobbled together by Ukrainian software engineers-turned-defense entrepreneurs. 

“Every smart person uses” drone detectors, said Yaroslav Markevich, a drone commander in Ukraine's Khartia battalion. 

But not everyone who wants one can get one. The devices are manufactured primarily by start-up companies that lack the funding and experience to keep up with demand, and that rely on volunteers—like so much of Ukraine’s wartime defense production.

Drones are ubiquitous across the frontline in Ukraine, from sophisticated military-grade surveillance aircraft to cheap suicide quadcopters. Both Russia and Ukraine likely field at least 50,000 first-person-view (FPV) suicide drones per month, said Samuel Bendett of the Center for Naval Analysis. Next year, Ukraine hopes to produce one million FPV drones, which would effectively double Bendett’s assessment of the current monthly rate of production. 

The drones are deadly. At least one out of every five Ukrainian FPV drones hits its target, said Ihor Dvoretskyi, a project manager with Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. 

And if a Russian Orlan artillery-spotting drone notices you, “you have three minutes to do something,” said Dmytro, a founder of drone-detecting company Kseonics.

Dmytro, like other founders in this article, is referred only by his first name for security reasons.

In response to the threat, Ukrainian software engineers have thrown themselves into learning everything from electronic warfare to soldering in order to build drone-detecting devices. Many devices are cheap, costing less than $250 for handheld models, and upwards of $400 for more sophisticated stationary models.

Another Dmytro, the founder of prominent drone-detecting company Drone Spices, first responded to Russia’s full-scale invasion by ginning up psychological operations. Using lists of phone numbers purchased online, he sent text messages to Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine encouraging them to stop. 

But Dmytro found that his texts were “pointless,” he said, because most Russian soldiers believed totally in the war. After other projects, he switched to trying his hand at building drone detectors. 

At the time, some Ukrainian soldiers were using software-defined radios like the HackRF to scan the electromagnetic spectrum for telltale signals. Such devices, like the RTL SDR, cost just $34, but weren’t made for military use;  they drained batteries, required laptops, and couldn’t tell drones from other emitters, Dmytro said. 

Other options, like foreign-made systems, could cost $10,000 to $20,000—too expensive for Ukraine, he said. They were also only capable of identifying commercial drones, not Russian military drones.  

Dmytro began by reverse-engineering the Orlan-10, widely used by Russian forces to coordinate artillery. Ukraine had downed a number of the drones, and pictures of its cheap, commercially available components were available in Ukrainian social media forums. 

Using his reverse-engineered Orlan, Dmytro designed a drone detector. A software engineer by training with no hardware background, he first attempted to use a sugar box for a case.

The design was a failure, but inspired the company’s name and product line, including detectors such as “Candy” for Orlans, “Salt,” which scans for Russian’s cell signals, and “Cinnamon,” a detector for the popular DJI-brand drones. Each sells for less than $100, which Dmytro said pays for the cost of materials and labor. 

Other founders, meanwhile, focused on the commercial photography and racing drones that Russia was using to cause havoc. 

Kara Dag, co-founded by tech entrepreneurs Ivan and Eric, produces handheld sensors that can detect a drone up to 2.4 miles away, send out a vibrating alert, and tell users what direction it’s coming from. 

Unlike some drone detectors, Kara Dag uses artificial intelligence to help identify a drone’s signals—even if the drone has not previously been identified or if its emission pattern is disrupted by its speed or other factors. 

The detectors can also recognize Ukrainian drones by taking data from Russian social media channels that share information about Ukrainian drones, Ivan said. 

Falcons, another Ukrainian drone-detector company, offers yet a different take. Its Eter product consists of a multi-antenna set-up tied to a computer workstation that identifies the direction and movements of multiple enemy drones. This can help troops determine whether to fight or hide, as a single anti-drone rifle won’t be able to take out a drone swarm, said Oleksandr, Falcons’ co-founder and CTO. 

The system can indicate a drone’s point of origin, allowing troops to target its operators. The company is even working on a version that would synchronize the drone-detection system with attack drones that would home in on an enemy operator’s signal.

Another project in the works is to extend the scanner’s memory by a week. This would help the tracker identify friendly drones by identifying those that come regularly from Ukrainian lines. 

“There's a lot of friendly fire on the frontline at the moment,” said Oleksandr. “You just don’t know whose drone it is…you just shoot everything.” 

Scaling, however, is an issue. The demand for drone detectors is intense, even with minimal advertising. 

Drone Spices saw demand skyrocket after two popular Facebook posts, Dmytro said. The company is now trying to increase production from hundreds of devices to thousands per month. 

“We’re trying to match the demand, but it’s hard,” said Dmytro. 

“There's four, maybe three, maybe four manufacturers of these devices,” said Ivan of Kara Dag. “And I do not know any of them where you can actually purchase it, because they’re sold out.” 

The companies, meanwhile, are figuring out the technology as they go along, staffed by software engineers who sometimes have little experience in hardware. 

Dmytro of Drone Spices first began assembling his devices by hand, learning to solder wires as he went. A new volunteer helped them make a breakthrough when he recommended using PCB boards — cheap, commercially available components that are the standard for wiring modern electronics. 

Even acquiring components can be challenging. While Kara Dag uses cheap, widely available components, shipping delays like those caused by Polish truckers at Ukraine’s border can be a problem, said Ivan. 

Attracting investors could help solve the issue by injecting more capital into their work. The ongoing war, however, means founders have competing concerns. 

For one, some depend on volunteer labor and donations to function. Dmytro of Drone Spices expressed worry that accepting investment might make volunteers question why they were donating their labor or equipment to the company.   

Others are pursuing foreign funding, but with the provision that Ukraine comes first. Kara Dag is in talks with venture capital firms, but “we don’t plan to make any profits from Ukraine,” said Ivan. Oleksandr, of Falcons, also said the company was in talks with investors but that the product was still in “pre-production” from an investors’ point of view. 

Taking money from the Ukrainian government is also an option, including from Brave1, a Ukrainian government defense technology office. Kseonics said it had received a $25,000 grant from Brave1, and Drone Spices has applied for assistance. 

Not all drone-detecting firms may have technology that’s ripe for the big time, noted Oleg Vornik, CEO of Australian anti-drone company DroneShield

“My recommendation for end users remains to keep doing what they would typically do – extensively test systems,” Vornik said. 

Ukraine must invest in these types of technologies, though, if it wants to win the war, said Ivan. 

Amid funding disputes and slow deliveries, Western weapons are not “sustainable,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Russia’s larger, wealthier Defense Ministry has shown itself capable of copying Ukrainian inventions and producing them in volumes that far exceed Ukraine’s production capacity. 

“To develop a sustainable advantage, we have to look into deep tech, which is hard to develop and hard to copy,” said Ivan.