Drones in Ukraine get smarter to dodge Russia’s jamming signals

A Ukrainian soldier prepares to catch an R-18 drone made by ISR Defence.
A Ukrainian soldier prepares to catch an R-18 drone made by ISR Defence.

Summary

As drones play an increasingly prominent role in the war, both sides are pitched in an evolving battle to down enemy craft and keep their own in the sky.

KYIV, Ukraine—The drones now leaving ISR Defence’s factory in Ukraine look exactly like those made there before Russia’s invasion but the components inside have completely changed. It is an exercise the company has gone through repeatedly to keep its drones aloft.

As drones play an increasingly prominent role in the war, both sides are pitched in a constantly evolving battle to down enemy craft and keep their own in the sky. Russia and Ukraine’s ability to wage electronic warfare—disrupting the signals guiding drones and render them mostly useless—has rapidly advanced. And so too have their efforts to stay ahead of that threat.

ISR has updated its exploding drone’s navigation equipment, antenna and video feed in a bid to avoid frequencies that Russia is targeting. Other drone manufacturers are focusing on making their equipment more autonomous, limiting the information they receive from satellites or operators that can be disrupted.

“Russian jamming is a crucial factor when making drones," said Vadym Yunyk, ISR’s co-founder. A manufacturer now has to be able to make changes to drones without the usual level of research and development, he added.

Western companies are eager to learn from Ukraine’s experience, with some setting up R&D centers in the country and others looking to invest in or partner with local businesses.

Unmanned aerial vehicles have come into their own in the Ukraine war. Surveillance and strikes by drones at the front line mean that almost any movement can be seen and targeted within minutes.

With drones now crossing the front line thousands of times a day, maintaining—and disrupting—that capability is a priority for both sides, and could provide an edge as the war grinds on.

Electronic warfare targets drones by essentially drowning out the signals being sent to a UAV along radio frequencies, blocking commands from its operator and the data required to navigate.

It is like tuning into a show on an old radio and not being able to hear it because it is overwhelmed by static, said Dmytro Shymkiv, co-founder of AeroDrone, a Ukrainian drone manufacturer.

Russia and Ukraine are trying to flood each other’s drones with static. Russia happens to be very good at it, Shymkiv said.

By the spring of last year, Ukraine was losing some 10,000 drones a month due to Russian electronic warfare, according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K. think tank.

Electronic warfare is decades old and was used extensively in World War II to jam radar signals. During the Ukraine war, both sides have increased their use of jamming systems and worked to improve their effectiveness by increasing their range and ability to cover more frequencies, among other measures.

One way to escape jamming is to move a drone’s communications onto a different frequency. But the enemy soon finds that frequency, ensuring a constant race across the spectrum.

Ukraine fits jamming devices to almost all vehicles operating at the front. Electronic-warfare devices take various forms, from simple vehicle-mounted antennas to hand-held guns that resemble futuristic rifles.

“But you go on one frequency and tomorrow they adjust their frequency," said Oleksiy Semenov, an infantry-fighting vehicle operator, near Avdiivka, in east Ukraine.

Drone makers are increasingly looking to equipment and software that filters out the useful signals their UAV needs from the noise being sent to disrupt it.

AeroDrone’s Shymkiv says he is constantly testing circuit boards, antennas and other new equipment to filter these noises out. If they are able to pick up a clearer signal, he can swap them into his drones.

Drones from Quantum Systems have a frequency hopping system that can automatically jump between radio frequencies as jamming occurs. The German company is building drones in Kyiv with a Ukrainian staff of about 40, and brings in parts from Europe to update its UAVs against more aggressive jamming tactics, said Chief Executive Florian Seibel.

“There is more electronic warfare the longer the war is raging," said Seibel.

New rules in Ukraine this month require any drone vendor that wants to sell directly to Ukraine to prove they can withstand jamming and fly without satellite communication, Seibel said.

One method to reduce drones’ reliance on satellite signals used in Ukraine is visual navigation, where a drone navigates by comparing the terrain it sees through its camera with a map it has already stored in its systems.

The U.S. Defense Department has contracts with American companies for visual navigation and is also doing its own development work on the technology.

Another way for drones to avoid jamming is using a so-called pixel lock, where the drone locks onto a target and follows it without needing to be remotely guided by an operator.

“The drone will continue without the pilot and if it gets jammed it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t use GPS," said Lorenz Meier, CEO of Auterion, which writes software for drones.

Auterion, based in Arlington, Va., opened a research and development office in Ukraine in September last year with 20 staff.

Meier says that outside of China, Kyiv is the drone capital of the world, with a large parts supply chain and fewer restrictions on testing than in the West.

By contrast, building a drone in the U.S. can be onerous. Policies aimed at keeping drones secure from hacking and durable for the battlefield limit what parts can be used, where they are bought from and when software can be updated.

Such policies, combined with some U.S. companies’ desire to keep total control over the hardware and software, mean American drones are often very difficult to make changes to, in the way Ukrainians are accustomed to, say drone entrepreneurs.

There are also only a few places where drones can be tested at distance because of the chances of bumping into aircraft. In Ukraine, only military planes are allowed to fly so the skies are much clearer.

Ukrainian drone makers’ reputation for innovation is prompting some Western companies—whose craft have largely struggled to cope with Russia’s electronic-warfare systems—to seek closer ties.

AeroVironment has explored potential acquisitions and partnerships in Ukraine, and elsewhere, though hasn’t yet done a deal, said Trace Stevenson, the company’s general manager of uncrewed systems.

“Ukraine is an interesting market, there is a lot of tech being developed rapidly there and based on real-world experience," he said.

The U.S. company’s Switchblade drones have been deployed in Ukraine since the first year of the war. In response to electronic warfare, AeroVironment is using a technology whereby a drone goes back to where it last had a connection when its communications are cut, rather than falling to earth. It has also started frequency hopping, though Stevenson says Russia will likely catch up.

“We anticipate they are good for six months," Stevenson said of the changes. “It’s a constant cat-and-mouse game."

Lockheed Martin, meanwhile, has an agreement to work with Kyiv-based Terminal Autonomy, which makes lightweight and low-cost strike drones.

The two companies are cooperating on a potential bid to participate in Replicator, a Defense Department initiative to field thousands of small autonomous drones, said Terminal Autonomy CEO Francisco Serra-Martins.

A Lockheed Martin spokesman said the company “is leveraging emerging technologies to meet the evolving challenges of a more complex battlespace."

In an effort to advance drone development in the U.S., the Defense Innovation Unit, an arm of the Defense Department set up to adopt startup technology, has loosened some of its requirements for drones it certifies as battlefield-ready. It expanded the number of approved components UAV makers can use in their designs from five to 36, making it easier to swap out parts, and is reducing the time required to approve software updates from three months to less than four days.

Outside of the DIU program, drone companies selling to the Defense Department often wait more than a year to get approval for their software updates.

These improvements alone won’t solve America’s problem that it can’t build drones fast and cheap enough, or with better defenses against electronic warfare, said Trent Emeneker, a project manager and contractor at the DIU.

“Are we anywhere close to where we should be? The answer is no," said Emeneker. “Even though we’ve made progress, we are further behind today than we were 2½ years ago."

Ievgeniia Sivorka and Karolina Jeznach contributed to this article.

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