Ukraine’s drone production vs Russian capabilities – UAV developer interview

The occupiers
The occupiers

Known in Ukraine as “the father of drones,” Oleksandr Chendekov tells NV about the fusion of Russian resources and Chinese manufacturing in equipping Russia’s military with modern UAVs, and how Ukraine could counter them.

As it happens, our interview with Chendekov, recorded in a café in Kyiv, was accompanied by an attack of Russian-Iranian Shahed drones.

Chendekov co-founded the AI startup FoxFour.ai, having previously worked for the Ukrspecsystems and Ukrjet drone manufacturers, and was involved in the creation of the most well-known Ukrainian UAV, the Bober (Beaver). These drones have repeatedly struck deep into Russian territory in the past, hitting buildings in central Moscow.

NV: What is the situation with FPV (first-person view) drone production? How normal is it for them to be produced by small companies? What are the pros and cons of FPV drone production in Ukraine?

Chendekov: I see it as a boon, because production by small companies has become an answer to a lethargic bureaucratic machine and centralized procurement of the Defense Ministry.

NV: So, this kind of decentralization is a good thing?

Chendekov: Yes, I’m inclined to believe that decentralization is a good thing. It’s also diversification and the reduction of security risks. It’s impossible to hit a huge factory and stop everything at once.

There are cons, too. It’s more expensive and more difficult to control quality. But this is all decided at the customer level. There are many [funding] programs, including Victory Drones [a volunteer project dedicated to UAVs]. Therefore, I think that now one of the big challenges facing this industry isn’t even increasing production to this [one] million [of UAVs produced as an annual goal] that everyone is talking about, but the fact that they will begin to dramatically lose efficiency in six months’ time. It will be a challenge. Because now all these FPV drones are 100% made from Chinese components.

NV: Earlier you said that FPV drones are not a replacement for conventional weapons.

Chendekov: Of course. Artillery won’t disappear from the battlefield, for example. We would really like to see the MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems] start turning into something more like HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and [HIMARS-like] MLRS, so that our missile armaments become more accurate and efficient. That is, to increase our capability not by firing more munitions, but by boosting their precision.

NV: To what extent can Ukraine supply itself with FPV drones?

Chendekov: Interesting question. If we mean assembly from Chinese components, it’s absolutely possible. Give China money and they’ll manufacture as much as we want, no problem. Another thing is that Russia will buy more, and here is something that really concerns me: any weapon, even if there are elements of innovation, some new approaches, if it’s based on Chinese components, Russia very quickly copies it. It buys [components] at the same place, and it has more money.

NV: There are different prices for FPV drones, around $500-700. How profitable are they to assemble?

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Chendekov: Without profit, any industry stagnates without investment, with no resources going into production, with no improvements, and loss of personnel. The state, represented by the Cabinet, has promised arms manufacturers a 25% profit margin from the basic cost price [to include in the price a profit of up to 25% from the basic cost price of products, including materials, components, labor costs, without administrative costs]. Another issue is when purchases are made with volunteer funds, I wouldn’t include it here. A total of 25% profit from the basic cost price, i.e., it doesn’t mean that there is a 25% net profit margin. I think the real margin is about 15%. It depends on production efficiency. Maybe someone can afford 20%. It’s important to understand that when we buy Ukrainian-made weapons, this profit is capitalized in the form of the development of our military industry.

NV: Could you, as an engineer, evaluate the samples of drone used by Russia?

Chendekov: I would single out Russian Lancet drones. They have an autonomous guidance system. Roughly speaking, it sees the target, captures it, and then pilots itself towards it. If we develop a drone like that, it will significantly improve our efficiency—if it works well. Because problems arise [with FPV drones] when approaching a target. It could be either a squad-level electronic warfare system, or some obstacles to the radio signal: terrain, trees, and buildings. Therefore, the presence of the autonomous guidance function is very important, and many groups are currently working on it, both ours and theirs, of course.

NV: But the Russians are using those Lancet UAVs less, lately.

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Chendekov: Assembling such drones requires Western microchips. Russia doesn’t have domestic chips capable of doing this. There are U.S., Chinese, and Taiwanese chips capable of doing this, as well as Korean ones. So, the question is the following: if China [through which Russia has access to Western components] joined the sanctions, we could say this would a certain guarantee against Moscow developing this new capability.

As for anti-drone technology, I don’t think such things will develop immediately. They won’t work properly at first, followed by the development of respective countermeasures. Everyone has seen how drones are shot down with small arms. Therefore, we’ll see systems that can do this automatically. They exist already but are expensive and were made to protect against anti-tank missiles.

NV: Do you think electronic warfare (EW) development in another six months will make drones less effective?

Chendekov: This is my prediction, yes.

NV: What will this EW arms race look like?

Chendekov: I think that electronic warfare systems will be installed on armored vehicles, in dugouts, at firing positions. The infantry will have no such systems as it’s too expensive to equip the entire force with it. But we’re gradually, step by step, moving towards some of the fantastic robot war movies, where people sit in dugouts or in bunkers and control military robots remotely. If we talk about technological development, the level of autonomy of robots will increase, and they will no longer need full human control from start to finish.

NV: What about drone swarms?

Chendekov: Swarm technology has several levels. The first one is when many drones are used simultaneously, in a coordinated manner, each with individual control. This is level zero, and communication problems already arise at this level since radio frequencies aren’t enough to support direct control of so many UAVs in one place.

The second level is when the drones are connected to each other and controlled as a single entity. But the task of their simultaneous preparation or launch remains a challenge. The flight time of one drone can be five or 10 minutes. That is, they must all be launched as a swarm in under one minute at most. That is, this part must be developed, i.e., the ground launch. They [drones in a swarm] are connected to each other. If they lose this connection, they become helpless and can be affected by electronic warfare. The swarm concept is very beautiful and sounds promising, but it’s a very difficult engineering task.

NV: What’s the situation with EW systems development in Ukraine?

Chendekov: We’ve already created quite a powerful electronic warfare system against Shahed UAVs. Now, when these drones fly, they cannot strike accurately because they are jammed in advance, while approaching their targets. They have no satellite [GPS navigation] and have rather inaccurate inertial navigation systems.

NV: How effective and expensive are Shahed UAVs to produce? Can Russia manufacture them in huge numbers?

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Chendekov: It’s important to not underestimate Russia’s capabilities as it simply has money [than us]. Money can do many different things, especially when it’s in the hands of a dictator with absolute power. They have no questions about arrangement with suppliers, or competition, or pricing. Russian manufacturers do as they are told. There were reports about the Shahed production facility in Tatarstan: according to the available factory space, it’s possible to produce about 300 drones a month. I think the bottleneck will be the production, first of all, of engines, because China most likely produces the engines for them. And the second is electronics. An interference-resistant GPS antenna is one of the key elements in Shahed UAVs, where U.S.-made microcircuits are used. They have to buy them somewhere. I don’t know who should supply them or whether there are problems with them. I think this could be a limiting factor.

NV: What about the cost of these drones?

Chendekov: I estimate the cost of a Shahed UAV at about $80,000, at break-even. Given they are exported from Iran, it will have both a profit margin and all kinds of duties, taxes, etc. My estimate is about $150,000 [the cost of one Iranian Shahed UAV for Russians].

NV: Does Ukraine have an advantage over Russia in terms of drones?

Chendekov: Our advantage is that we are not isolated from the world and can attract the best Western technologies and components. That is, no one prevents us from taking some high-speed microchip and using it. We can submit documents for export control and receive them. We are under no sanctions.

The motivational factor is also an advantage. All of those who deal with drones in Ukraine are on an emotional upswing: they feel that they’re doing an important thing. They don’t allow themselves to do anything wrong because they understand that people’s lives depend on it. Does Russia have this factor? I don’t know as I’m not an expert on this issue.

NV: How many companies do we have that produce large drones?

Chendekov: By my estimation, about 10 companies produce large drones. Perhaps another dozen or so are either volunteer foundations or some simple volunteer groups that are not registered in any way and are also developing something. They have an opportunity to develop something, pass trials and get orders.

NV: What drones do we need most now?

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Chendekov: I’d focus on currently unmet needs. For example, everyone dreams of hitting Russian strategic airfields. While the enemy has Tu-95 strategic bombers launching Kh-101 and Kh-55 missiles, we can expect massive missile attacks. The limiting factor in missile attacks is the number of carriers, i.e., the Tu-95 aircraft. Therefore, we need a drone that can cover over 2,000 km [and hit the bombers].

It’s difficult to achieve a range of 2,000 km. Globally, only a few kinds of cruise missiles can achieve this, and only a handful of countries managed to develop a weapon like that.

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