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In Ukraine Conflict, Rivals Play Game of Drones

A pro-Kyiv drone operator carries one of the homemade aircraft used to gather intelligence. (Adam Bailes/VOA News)

In the Ukraine conflict, both Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian rebels rely heavily on drones for enemy surveillance.

A man who calls himself Duke set up the first volunteer drone team in Ukraine as part of the pro-government DNIPRO-1 Battalion. To aid Ukraine’s cash-strapped army, the team of military personnel and civilians makes its own drones. Duke said materials for each of the small aircraft – with a wingspan of three meters – run approximately $3,000. The team raises money through crowdsourcing, and it reduces costs by assembling its own batteries and using open-source software for controls.

It's not clear how many homemade drones have been built, but at least several have been lost. Team members say the separatists have blocked signals from the drones' GPS devices, interrupting tracking efforts.

Each drone is outfitted with a small camera to record images of enemy positions that their operators review later.

The drones "allow us to complete real combat missions," Duke said. "Guys in DNIPRO who are building the drones – we think they may be the best constructors in our country. And these DIY drones will be provided now for all the army and interior ministry units."

Assessing the enemy

One recent day, the DNIPRO-1 drone's reconnaissance mission was to locate any heavy weapons that the enemy might have hidden and that Ukrainian forces could target.

The team tracked the drone with GPS as it flew over a separatist position. Images from DNIPRO-1 later revealed a stockpile of military tanks near Donetsk's rebel-held airport and, Duke said, many military vehicles on the front lines.

"It’s not even dozens, it's hundreds," Duke said. "There are a lot of military vehicles. What the reason is for the concentration of weapons, I don't know."

Last week, Ukraine's military said its drones recorded more than 300 combat and armored vehicles in Donetsk.

The drone team said Ukraine's government gives its collected images to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the cease-fire agreed to in February in Minsk.

U.S. backs nonlethal military aid

U.S. President Barack Obama has for now been leaning against equipping Ukraine with offensive military equipment, instead backing a deal to provide Ukraine with $75 million in nonlethal military aid.

Duke said he believes lethal aid isn’t necessary – but sophisticated technology is.

"Do we need modern weaponry from foreign partners? My personal point of view is 'no.' We need modern technology," Duke said. "We have a lot of technical specialists like me and my partner here, so we need to be provided modern technology to detect enemy drones or to detect enemy weapon launching positions."

For now, they are building their own remote spy planes and training more teams in other battalions to keep an eye on the front line.

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