Inside Ukrainian drone school where being a PlayStation guru counts as a useful skill

·4 min read
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

On a muddy field on the outskirts of Kyiv, soldiers hunched over handheld controls and talk to each other in hushed voices about which way to direct the drone that hums overhead.

It takes a certain skill to successfully navigate the drone, explained Oleksandr, 45, the head of the Dronarium training centre – and it doesn’t come from traditional military training.

“For someone who plays PlayStations, it’s easier,” Oleksandr, who cannot give his full name for security reasons, told The Telegraph.

Between 30 and 35 soldiers are enrolled on each five-day course, having been sent to the centre by their military units. With 15 different types of drones available, the soldiers fly the lightweight devices – which weigh no more than 250g (8.9oz) – between a four- and seven-kilometre range as they role-play scenarios they are likely to encounter on the battlefield.

The drones included the DJI Mavic Mini, Mavic Air and Mavic Pro. Although not the latest models, the devices can cost up to £1,700.

Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Sent out into the field, the soldiers are split into pairs where they are given “intelligence” regarding military objects that have been discovered in a “nearby location”.

With the use of a map, their objective is to fly the drone to the designated pinch point, record as much information as they can in the form of photographs and then fly the drone back without being spotted. Once they have relayed what information they have found to their commander, it is mission complete.

The training centre was established by Oleksandr in the months after the war. It first launched in Lviv in April and then opened a second branch in Kyiv.

Before the war, the 45-year-old worked on his international business selling pet supplies online. He learnt to fly a drone eight years ago and used it to make a bit of money on the side filming weddings and other celebrations.

Never did he think that his side hustle would now be helping his country in the fight against the Russians.

Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

Yet, the prominence of unmanned aircraft on the front line has dominated the war in Ukraine, with both Russia and Ukraine operating professional military drones as their “eyes”. As such, it is no wonder that the Armed Forces are recruiting the likes of Oleksandr to share his expertise.

Russia operates a large fleet of Orlan-10 winged observation drones, whereas Ukraine tends to use its own fixed-wing observation drones, Leleka and Furia, while Kyiv has also used kamikaze drones such as the American-made Switchblade and the Polish-supplied Warmate.

Ukraine also uses the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which played an important role in destroying Russian armoured columns at the start of the war.

However, Oleksandr explained that many of the soldiers who come to his centre have their own commercial drones which they fly on the front line.

He said: “During the war, we realised drones were essential. But lots of soldiers were crashing them because they had their own drones but didn’t know how to properly use them.”

Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

As a centre, they have now trained more than 700 soldiers to become pilots and hope to continue training “until the war stops”.

For Max Gherasimov, one of the lead instructors, he acknowledged that it is a lot of information for the soldiers to take in in such a short period of time.

“We deliberately do not give too much information to the soldiers when they do this task in order to replicate the conditions on the front line,” he said.

It was only after the invasion began in February that the 45-year-old, who previously worked in football management, decided to complete a course in drone flying. However, he proved such a natural that now he teaches some of Ukraine’s finest soldiers how to operate the devices.

“My students are so dedicated,” Mr Gherasimov added. “They come here for five days’ training, then they return to the front line and are better for it.”

Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph
Ukraine Kyiv drone academy - Paul Grover for The Telegraph

He admitted that he sometimes worries his men are “too serious” when completing the tasks. His assessment that the soldiers were so determined in their training was not an understatement.

During The Telegraph’s visit, the soldiers never appeared to be laughing or joking with one another at any point. Instead, their faces were etched with concentration and they appeared to hang on the instructors’ every word.

It was only when lunch was brought out – cooked chicken, chunks of bread and salad – that the soldiers appeared to relax somewhat as they smoked cigarettes and played with some of the eight puppies who had made the base their home.

Yet even then, there was an air of quiet resilience among the soldiers.

“This is a question about their lives so, of course, they are serious,” Mr Gherasimov added.