Jason Boubyan / NPR
Southern Ukraine – pictures on your laptop of a ghost town. The camera looking down rotates and flaunts a burning school.
Sasha is sitting in the back of a Ukrainian military truck hidden under camouflaged nets, watching video from a surveillance drone. His team just launched the drone from a 30-foot slingshot. It has now crossed the front line overlooking a village occupied by Russia.
Sasha enlarges the image further.
“You see the burning machines,” he says, pointing to the rusty red metal corpses in the school yard. A tower appears as the drone, which is flying one kilometer above the village, crosses over the school. “This is a burning tank,” says Sasha.
There are no cars moving on the streets. No Pedestrians. It seems to Sasha that all the inhabitants of the village have fled. Different animals roam from yard to yard.
“You can see the cows,” he said, pointing at the screen. They no longer belong to anyone. Unfortunately, animals also suffer in this war.
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Their task today is to determine whether the Russian forces have completely withdrawn from this village. The area is in dispute and the Ukrainians have bombed it heavily with artillery in recent days. “We got this job from the intelligence this morning,” Sasha says, referring to Ukrainian military intelligence.
The resolution of the live video is good enough that Sasha says he can spot stray dogs by sight in many of the villages he watches. The drone stores high-resolution images in an onboard memory chip that his team can analyze closely once the drone returns.
“The day before yesterday, the enemy truck was in the yard there,” says Sasha, leaning closer to his laptop. Now the truck is gone.
The unit is named after a famous fictional character
This Ukrainian drone unit is named Karlson after a flying character from a classic Swedish children’s book, Carlson on the roof.
They allowed NPR to visit them on condition that their full names and location not be disclosed.
The team uses several small drones that you can buy at an electronics store for a few thousand dollars. On this day, they operate the largest fixed-wing drone. They raised tens of thousands of dollars to buy this online. It looks like a miniature plane with a camera attached to its nose.
The Carlson The Air Traffic Control Team is officially a regional defense unit. In Ukraine, almost anyone can create a territorial defense unit. Some are just a group of men with Kalashnikovs who take turns running checkpoints outside the villages. Others are fully equipped infantry units that have been integrated into the armed forces.
Carlson consisted of 23 men, mostly in their thirties, from the Dnipro region. Before the Russian invasion, none of them had military experience. The captain, who goes by the nom de guerre “Playboy,” says everyone on the team has different backgrounds. Playboy used to run his own business.
“We have technical specialists, and IT specialists,” he says.
Sasha, with his clothes, body armor and beard, looks like a soldier. “Can you believe he was a politician?” Playboy says with a laugh.
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Sasha quickly corrects him: “Vice. I was a deputy.”
Drone Surveillance Supports What Its Commander Calls ‘The Fist of War’
The conflict in Ukraine is mostly an artillery war. The two sides are bombing each other’s positions across a front line stretching hundreds of miles along eastern and southern Ukraine. Playboy magazine calls the artillery “the fist of war.” He says he and his colleagues created this drone control unit to help punch the fist more accurately.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces declined to comment on how many units of drones such as these the country has. It says they will not comment on military operations. But external observers In this conflict, thousands of drones are being used by both sides.
Along most of the front lines, mobile phone and GPS signals are jammed and monitored by both Russians and Ukrainians. To communicate, Karlson’s team uses portable walkie-talkies and a Starlink mobile phone connection donated by Elon Musk’s satellite internet company. If they spot a potential target, they use Starlink communication to summon other military units.
Sometimes if we see a file [Russian] Convoy, we are in contact with the artillery unit, says Sasha, “we give them the coordinates and they start bombing.”
Aerial Spy vs Spy Game
In the city of Zaporizhzhia, Denis Pasko, who is not part of the Karlson unit, runs a school for drones. He trains Ukrainian soldiers to use them for surveillance and, in his words, “to throw explosives at the heads of Russians.”
Pascoe says that drones can be incredibly useful for a military unit. They can safely and quickly give soldiers a view of the battlefield. But he cautioned that tracking commercial drones is very easy and often reveals information about the operator’s location.
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“You have to be close to the front lines,” he says. “And if the enemy finds out about your location, you may die.”
When a drone is “lost” in combat, Pascoe says it usually isn’t shot down. Usually the enemy managed to gain control of his navigation system. Pascoe says that if a drone is captured by the enemy, it can reveal a lot of information.
“It has the geolocation of the operator,” he says. “It keeps a history of all the places it’s been flying,” including the exact location of where it was launched. The enemy can immediately target the drone team with a missile or a mortar.”
The spot where Carlson’s team is working today is a group of trees separating a recently harvested wheat field from a tall patch of sunflowers. Next to the truck in which Sasha and his colleagues are observing the drone, there are pits the size of a coffin into which the team could dive if the Russians began bombing their mobile base.
In addition to monitoring, the unit is also trying to track and intercept Russian drones – while on the other side of the front line, Russian drone operators are searching for Carlson drones. It is an aerial spy vs spy game.
On many days, work can include hours of staring at video footage. seek. Find clues.
“This is our mission,” Sasha says. “We sit all day and watch.”
Amidst the animals and abandoned houses on your laptop, discover what could be an excavated Russian tank. It looks like a patch of dirt the size of a trampoline has recently been dug up and then sanded. Sasha writes down her position. He says he will look closely at the site for the high-resolution images when the drone returns.
Shells could be heard from afar. Sasha doesn’t look much from his screen.
“Exported,” he muttered.
He says there is nothing to worry about. Their plane continues to scan across the front line. Presumably, somewhere in the nearby sky, Russian drones are also scanning the landscape – looking for the Carlson Mobile Base among the trees.
Hana Palamarenko contributed to this report.
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