Proliferation of Consumer Drones in Ukraine – The Catalyst

October 28, 2022 | NOTICE | By AJ Fabbri | Artwork by Elizabeth White

On a sunny October morning, a Da-Jiang Innovations Mavic drone with a broken propeller fell from the sky and ended up on an agricultural plot in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Was he shot? Caught in a net? Zapped by a laser? No, no and no. His unexpected attacker, to the internet’s surprise, was another Mavic. This one-of-a-kind combat test makes the proliferation of drones in armed conflict virtually inevitable.

If you’re interested in cinematography, chances are you’ve heard of DJI. The Shenzhen, China-based company has empowered amateurs and professionals alike to shoot incredible footage with the stability, ease, and cost-effectiveness that makes helicopter-mounted cameras nearly obsolete. Released in 2016, the Mavic Pro’s portability and $999 price tag launched DJI’s flagship line of consumer drones, which has since propelled it to a 70% market share in the industry.

On the other side of the spectrum are military drones. Famous for their extensive use under President Obama, who authorized 542 strikes that killed an estimated 3,797 people in the Middle East and North Africa, they have become a staple of the US military-industrial complex. Military drones have proven effective in ending lives. They have also proven to be expensive, with prices exceeding $200 million per unit, pushing the military drone market to $11.73 billion in 2022.

The use of drones in war and espionage operations is nothing new; neither are their uses in film, surveying, and agriculture. Even the Birds Aren’t Real movement, often ridiculed for its claims that birds are government surveillance drones, is onto something. In 2018 news broke that more than 30 Chinese government and military agencies were using bird drones to spy on civilians, with Computer Network reporting that “they are called doves and they do not come in peace”.

In the Ukraine War, both sides use small, hard-to-detect consumer DJI drones to scout enemy positions and plan ambushes. Military reconnaissance drones which are much cheaper than combat drones still cost upwards of $35,000. The $2049 price tag of DJI’s Mavic 3, their most expensive Mavic, makes it a much more attractive purchase than a similar military drone despite the sacrifices in range and battery life.

Reports have shown Ukrainian troops flying drones to direct precise artillery fire, using them as reconnaissance units alongside larger drones dropping grenades, and modifying them with thermal imagery to find Russian targets in dense forests and at night. Much to the dismay of DJI, which has banned the sale of their drones to Russia and Ukraine because they “absolutely deplore any use of [their] harmful products,” these tactics have been commonplace for months.

Unlike reconnaissance and DJI-approved apps, drone combat is new. On October 13, 2022, Ukrainian broadcaster and activist Serhiy Prytula tweeted the first known video of this type of military engagement. The clip, recorded on a Ukrainian Mavic drone, shows an unsuspecting Russian drone on which the Ukrainian operator sneaks up and collides from behind. As the Russian drone’s propeller breaks and it begins to fall from the sky, footage shows it is also a DJI Mavic. Now that Ukraine has demonstrated the previously unrealized offensive capabilities of small drones through aerial ramming, war zones are sure to see a dramatic increase in the prevalence of the tactic.

After doing research for this article, I couldn’t help but wonder what owners of DJI drones who use them peacefully would think of their military applications. Would they have ethical or moral objections? Ben Curry ’21, a photographer-director who uses a DJI Mavic for his work, gave me some clarification on this: “It makes sense that it is used in wartime. It’s incredibly profitable. You don’t have to risk a human life. […] If I was at war, I would probably use my drone.

Russia and Ukraine seem to agree with Ben. DJI’s ban on sales to the two countries didn’t amount to much; the Russian military has found ways around the ban, and Ukrainian forces receive many of their drones through donations from civilians and foreigners. Although it may go against DJI’s code of ethics, defending Ukraine is a virtuous use of consumer drones. Technological advances are often points of no return; once established, there is no turning back. Like many technologies, drones are tools and the ethical debate around them should focus on how they are used, not whether they exist.

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