Jason Beaubien / NPR
SOUTH UKRANE — The images on the laptop are of a ghost town. The downward-looking camera rotates and zooms in on a burned-out school.
Sacha sits in the back of a Ukrainian military van, hidden under camouflage netting, monitoring video from a surveillance drone. His team just launched the drone from a 30-meter catapult. It has now crossed the front line and peers into a Russian-occupied village.
Sacha zooms in further.
“You see the burnt machines,” he says, pointing to some rust-red metal carcasses in the school yard. A turret comes into view as the drone, flying nearly a kilometer above the village, flies over the school. “That’s a burnt tank,” Sacha says.
There are no cars on the streets. No pedestrians. It seems to Sacha that all the inhabitants of the village have fled. Different animals wander from yard to yard.
“You can see the cows,” he says, pointing to the screen. “They don’t belong to anyone anymore. Unfortunately, animals also suffer in this war.”
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Their task for today is to determine whether Russian troops have completely withdrawn from this village. The area is disputed and the Ukrainians have been shelling it heavily with artillery in recent days. “We received this task from the intelligence service this morning,” says Sacha, referring to the Ukrainian military intelligence service.
The resolution of the live-streamed video is good enough that Sacha says he can spot stray dogs in many of the villages he monitors. The drone stores even higher-resolution images in a built-in memory chip that its team can analyze more accurately once the drone returns.
“The enemy truck was there in the yard the day before yesterday,” Sacha says, leaning closer to the laptop. “Now the truck is gone.”
The unit is named after a popular fictional character
This Ukrainian drone unit is named Karlson after a flying character from a classic Swedish children’s book, Karlsson on the Roof.
They have allowed NPR to visit them on the condition that their full names and location are not 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 their largest fixed-wing drone. They raised tens of thousands of dollars to buy this online. It looks like a miniature airplane, with a camera on its nose.
Karlson’s air surveillance team is officially a territorial defense unit. In Ukraine, almost anyone can set up a territorial defense unit. Some of them are just a bunch of guys with AK-47s who take turns manning checkpoints outside villages. Others are fully equipped infantry units incorporated into the armed forces.
Karlson is made up of 23 men, mostly in their thirties, from the Dnipro region. Prior to the Russian invasion, no one had military experience. The commander, who uses the nom de guerre “Playboy,” says everyone on the team comes from different backgrounds. Playboy used to have his own company.
“We have technical specialists, IT specialists,” he says.
Sacha, in his fatigue, body armor and beard, looks just like the soldier. Playboy laughs: “Can you believe he used to be a politician!”
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Sacha quickly corrects him: “Deputy. I was a deputy.”
Drone surveillance supports what the commander calls the ‘fist of war’
The conflict in Ukraine is predominantly an artillery war. Both sides are shelling each other’s positions across a frontline stretching hundreds of miles along eastern and southern Ukraine. Playboy calls artillery the ‘fist of war’. He says he and his colleagues set up this drone surveillance unit to help punch that fist more accurately.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces declined to comment on how many drone units like this the country has. She says they will not comment on military operations. But outside observers say thousands of drones are being used by both sides in this conflict.
Along most front lines, cellphone and GPS signals are blocked and controlled by both the Russians and Ukrainians. To communicate, the Karlson team uses portable walkie-talkies and a Starlink mobile connection donated by Elon Musk’s satellite internet company. If they see a potential target, they use the Starlink connection to call other military units.
“Sometimes, when we have a [Russian] convoy, we are in contact with the artillery unit,” says Sacha. “We give them the coordinates and they start shelling.”
An aerial game of spy vs. spy
In the city of Zaporizhzhia, Denis Pasko, who is not part of the Karlson unit, runs a drone school. He trains Ukrainian soldiers to use them both for surveillance and, in his words, to “drop explosives on the heads of the Russians.”
Pasko says drones can be incredibly useful to a military unit. They can give soldiers a relatively safe and quick view of the battlefield. But he warns that commercial drones are incredibly easy to track and often reveal 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 knows your position, you could be dead.”
When a drone gets “lost” in combat, Pasko says it usually doesn’t get shot down. Most of the time, the enemy managed to gain control of his navigation system. If a drone is caught by the enemy, Pasko says, it can reveal a lot of information.
“It has the operator’s geo position. It keeps a history of all the places it flew,” he says, “including the exact location from where it was launched. The enemy can immediately attack the drone team with a missile.” or mortar shells.”
The place where the Karlson team is working on this day is a group of trees separating a recently harvested wheat field from a long stretch of sunflowers. In addition to the van where Sasha and his colleagues are monitoring the drone, there are coffin-sized pits for the team to dive into if the Russians start shelling their mobile base.
In addition to surveillance, the unit is also trying to track and intercept Russian drones — while on the other side of the front line, Russian drone operators are on the hunt for Karlson’s drones. It is an air game of spy vs spy.
On many days, work can involve hours of staring at video. To search. Looking for clues.
“This is our job,” says Sacha. “We sit all day and watch.”
Between the animals and abandoned houses on the laptop he sees what could be a buried Russian tank. A trampoline-sized patch of soil looks like it was recently dug up and then smoothed out. Sasha notes her position. He says he will take a closer look at the location on the high-definition footage when the drone returns.
You can hear shelling in the distance. Sasha doesn’t even look up from his screen.
“Outgoing,” he mumbles.
He says it’s nothing to worry about. Their drone continues to scan across the front line. And presumably, somewhere in the skies nearby, Russian drones are scanning the landscape, too – looking for Karlson’s mobile base among the trees.