Ukrainian Drone Photographers Join War Effort, Gather Real-Time Imagery

Ukrainian drone enthusiasts who normally photograph landscapes or weddings are signing up to use their piloting skills to assist in the war effort by providing real-time data on Russian troop movement in their country.

The Ukrainian military used a Facebook post last week to call on citizens to donate their personal drones or volunteer as pilots to operate them and assist in the war effort, the Associated Press (AP) reports.

“Kyiv needs you and your drone at this moment of fury!” the Facebook post read.

Large numbers of drones have been donated to the cause by local retail stores and while these consumer-level drones, largely made by Chinese manufacturer DJI, cannot be used as weapons, they can provide valuable intelligence to Ukraine’s defense forces that at actively fighting to push back the Russian invasion. The AP reports that civilians have been using the drones to track Russian convoys and relay photos and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops.

DJI Mavic 3 flying, full body shot
Photo by Ryan Mense for PetaPixel.

Concern Over Tracking Pilots

As helpful as this data is, there is concern that DJI’s tracking information may put pilots in danger. The company provides a tool that can easily pinpoint the location of a drone operator — called AeroScope — which, under normal circumstances, would be used by law enforcement to find a pilot who was breaking any flight laws. That information is regularly gathered by DJI, and there is fear in Ukraine about where that might go, as DJI has declined to discuss the specifics of that information.

The AP reports that a dealer of DJI drones in Kyiv says that the company has not been clear about who it is providing access to its AeroScope platform data. Without this information, pilots are taking extra precautions. Many are even bringing in alternatives to DJI in order to avoid the problem altogether.

The problem is particularly troubling as Russian communication channels on the Telegram messaging app feature discussions on how to find Ukrainian drones.

“The risk to civilian drone operators inside Ukraine is still great,” Australian drone security expert Mike Monnik tells the AP. “Locating the operator’s location could result in directed missile fire, given what we’ve seen in the fighting so far. It’s no longer rules of engagement as we have had in previous conflicts.”