When Anton Varavin saw the first videos of explosive drones smashing into central Moscow in May, he smiled at what he saw as revenge. “I remember thinking: Never piss off a Ukrainian engineer.”
Mr. Varavin is a robotics specialist who designs guidance systems for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). So while he doesn’t always know what is done with the technology his company, Midgard Dynamics, produces for the Ukrainian military, he could instantly tell that the first drones to strike Moscow, as well as some of those that hit Russian military targets in the occupied Crimean Peninsula, had been using software designed by his firm.
The war in Ukraine has seen unprecedented reliance on drones. Both sides use UAVs to surveil the front line and to help direct artillery fire. Countless online videos have demonstrated how a cheap quadcopter “bomber” drone, which hovers over the target before dropping its guided payload, can destroy a tank that cost millions of dollars.
Russia has launched armadas of Iranian-made Shahed explosive drones at Ukrainian cities on a near-nightly basis.
Ukraine is increasingly responding in kind, giving ordinary Russians a taste of the fear that has become a constant in this country.
On Sunday night alone, Russia launched 19 Shahed drones as part of a massive attack on Odesa, all of which were destroyed, though three cruise missiles penetrated Ukrainian air defences and damaged a hotel as well as port infrastructure.
Russia said its own air defences had destroyed four Ukrainian drones launched at the occupied Crimean Peninsula, while other drones struck an administrative building and damaged private homes in Russia’s Kursk region.
Sea drones – explosives-laden boats – have also been used recently to attack the Russian fleet and the bridge connecting Crimea and internationally recognized Russian territory.
Mr. Varavin said Midgard does not produce guidance systems for the sea drones, but he knows the people who do. The boats, he said, are powered by the same engines used in Sea-Doos, and the first prototype was actually built using a Canadian kayak.
“Thank you to our Canadian friends,” Mr. Varavin said with a laugh.
In this first drone war, an attack on a city – or soldiers in a trench or a naval base – is often carried out by an operator stationed tens, if not hundreds, of kilometres away, who can neither hear nor feel the blast. The technology the militaries deploy is often designed by civilians like 47-year-old Mr. Varavin, who lives and works far from the front line, in western Ukraine.
But that doesn’t mean this very 21st-century conflict isn’t deeply personal. Mr. Varavin’s pre-war home, in a village outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, was under Russian occupation for the first six months of the war. Midgard’s office, which The Globe and Mail visited just before the February, 2022, start of the invasion, was destroyed by a cruise missile that left seven employees injured.
Mr. Varavin, whose name and address were posted on the Telegram messaging app on a list of perceived enemies of Russia – with their names crossed off as they were captured or killed – was delighted to assist in hitting back at those who had struck his home and workplace. “When they sent a cruise missile to my office, I felt we were getting international recognition,” Mr. Varavin said with a hearty laugh. “Unfortunately, I do not know how much money they will pay for killing me. Maybe we can add it to the valuation of my company!”
He and his staff have been constantly on the move since then, and he uses the past tense to describe Midgard’s stay in Ternopil, a city 900 kilometres west of Kharkiv. The war feels remote here, but Mr. Varavin knows as well as anyone that no one is out of reach in what he calls “the world’s first cyberwar.”
“This war is not about the artillery, not about infantry. That’s not about tanks at all. When I show to my friend – he’s a very well-known tank engineer, and his father and his grandfather were well-known tank engineers – what we were building, these bombs that can destroy a tank, he said to me, ‘You destroy all that I love,’ ” Mr. Varavin said with another, triumphant, laugh.
He held up a prototype of the device that shocked his tank-building friend. A small piece of tube cut from a car’s exhaust pipe, plus a few pieces produced with a 3-D printer, make up a bomblet that can be dropped from a loitering drone. All that’s missing is the explosive material, which is added after Midgard hands the technology over to the Ukrainian military. “It really costs only a few dollars to make.”
In Ukraine, Maria Berlinskaya is known as the “mother of drones.” The volunteer wants to train all of Ukraine’s troops to use the technology and believes drone warfare is a crucial and cost-effective strategy that could help Ukraine defeat its much larger enemy.
“To win this war, technology is our strongest ally,” she said in an interview in Kyiv.
Russia, Ms. Berlinskaya said, has more tanks, aircraft and soldiers. As an autocracy, it can hide the real number of casualties it has suffered in the field and quietly replenish those losses with conscripts.
“Ukraine’s sensitivity to losses necessitates innovative solutions,” she said. “Drones play a pivotal role in saving soldiers’ lives and enabling precise artillery strikes against the enemy. One drone can save 50 or 100 of our soldiers’ lives on the front line.”
Ms. Berlinskaya’s passion for UAV technology can be traced back to when she volunteered as a reconnaissance drone operator in 2014, at the outbreak of the proxy war in Ukraine’s Donbas region. At the end of her tour, she and a few comrades set up the Centre for Air Intelligence, an academy where volunteer civilian instructors teach soldiers how to operate drones.
At first, the academy – now known as Victory Drones – had perhaps 10 students a month. Now, more than 150 instructors are working with a thousand or more future drone operators each month at 12 state-of-the-art training grounds. In some cases, Victory Drones teaches first-time drone users, and provides them with UAVs. In others, it provides more advanced courses to experienced soldiers who bring their own equipment.
Although she is not serving in any official military capacity, Ms. Berlinskaya’s drone operation lessons are endorsed by the armed forces, and she works closely with Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny, among other senior military officials.
Soldiers on the front lines understand the value of the UAV experts helping them from afar. “Without aerial reconnaissance data, our soldiers on the front line are blind, noticing the enemy’s approach only when it’s too late,” said Senior Lieutenant Bogdan (The Globe and Mail is not disclosing his full name for security reasons), nicknamed “Bolt,” from the 1st Tank Brigade.
Ms. Berlinskaya says she hopes to eventually provide all one million enlisted Ukrainian soldiers basic training in drone operation. “In 21st-century warfare, every soldier must know how to handle drones and be technologically literate. It is far more crucial than knowing how to handle a rifle or dig a trench.”
Back in Ternopil, Mr. Varavin and his team are preparing for the next evolution of the UAV war.
While some of Midgard’s engineers work to refine their existing targeting systems, Mr. Varavin and others in Ternopil’s emerging high-technology hub are experimenting with what else might be possible.
In a nondescript garage across the city from Midgard’s office, engineer Maxim Radominsky uses a remote control to operate a tracked flatbed vehicle that he has designed and built based on specifications from the Ukrainian military. He hopes it might soon be utilized near the front line for missions ranging from clearing mines to carrying a remote-controlled machine gun and possibly functioning as a stretcher for evacuating wounded soldiers.
Before the war, Mr. Radominsky’s tiny firm, Robotic Agrosystems, created technological solutions for farmers, including aerial drones for spraying crops. And he has an eye to how the yellow flatbed vehicle might one day be useful in agriculture, after the war is over. But for now, the military’s needs take precedence. “If this next design is successful, we have a factory nearby ready to start mass production,” the 27-year-old explained as he piloted the drone around his garage.
Separately, Midgard is working on a prototype for what it’s calling “Cannibal” – a drone that specializes in “eating” other drones. The mission is to counter the Shahed drones that have terrorized Ukrainian cities since late last year and have proven difficult for conventional anti-aircraft weapons to shoot down. “The Cannibal drone will be the answer to the Shahed,” Mr. Varavin boasted. “After we win, you will not see a lot of Shaheds in the sky.”