back to article Russian military uses Chinese drones and bots in combat, over manufacturers' protests

Russia's military has praised civilian grade Chinese-made drones and robots for having performed well on the battlefield, leading their manufacturers to point out the equipment is not intended or sold for military purposes. When a video of a robot camera dog showed up with a grenade launcher on Russian state-sponsored media …

  1. Joe W Silver badge
    Terminator

    There's a reason for the statement

    "DJI has only ever made products for civilian use; they are not designed for military applications,"

    'cause if it was for military use, paid for by a governemnt (any govm't), the price would go up tenfold (at least, likely quite a bit more) for the same product...

    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: There's a reason for the statement

      There's a reason for the statement

      Because China is doing it's best to avoid being seen as supplying Russia and ending up sanctioned to the same extent as Russia is?

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: There's a reason for the statement

        Yes, very much this. Russia is only interesting for China as a source of energy and raw materials. It's a tiny and declining market. There's a long history of military non-cooperation with considerable areas of competing interests.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: There's a reason for the statement

        The china state is rapidly becoming less interested in the effects of sanctions. Though it does have some internal issues of its own.

        The US, Nato and the EU can slap on what it wants - it

        A has plenty of other markets - its seen how Russia has coped quite well

        B has a very short hop to Taiwan - and the west knows it.

        Loose Taiwan, and loose all those Xboxes - oh and those hirmars missiles that need replaced.

        And the F35 and any other boom-toy.

        1. Spazturtle Silver badge

          Re: There's a reason for the statement

          Military equipment doesn't use chips made by TSMC, it uses radiation hardened chips made by companies like BAE Systems or TI.

          1. Robert 22

            Re: There's a reason for the statement

            True for nuclear weapons and satellites, but not for most other applications. Mil-spec chips are rated and tested to work over a larger temperature range and use packaging that has a high resistance to moisture.

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: There's a reason for the statement

            But the parts and material to run/maintain the machines that makes those chips?

            Those become more important the more extended the conflict.

        2. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: There's a reason for the statement

          People who think Russia is coping well with sanctions don't understand the impact they were intended to have. The idea sanctions can be placed and they will have immediate impact is silly. It prevents future trade, it doesn't magically undo past trade.

          Russia cannot get parts they need to make new products (both military and civilian) or repair existing products. They had stocks in country so that isn't an impact that's felt right away, but those stockpiles don't last forever. Even if you can find workarounds for some by using/modifying Chinese made parts, or do a complete redesign that uses only Chinese made parts MANY of the kind of smart people who figure out how to do that have already left Russia.

          There is plenty of evidence they are having increasing difficulty because of the sanctions. Heck, just the fact they are forced to use Chinese consumer drones rather than making more of their own tells you all you need to know. The US and NATO can resupply Ukraine's military a lot faster than Russia's military can figure out how to redesign equipment that uses western parts or repurpose Chinese civilian hardware for military purposes.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Black Helicopters

      Re: There's a reason for the statement

      Too true. Militaries worldwide are realizing that Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS - it's so common we made an acronym for it) products are cost effective.

      All of them buy commercial drones. The US used to buy DJI until they banned it over security concerns. Now they have a list of approved non-Chinese commercial drones. If you asked any of those companies I'm sure they'd also say they're not intended for military use.

      Drones are ubiquitous for observing the battlefield and small, easily portable, cheap, non-milspec drones are the way to go.

  2. Filippo Silver badge

    This is something that needs paying attention

    Currently, drones designed for the military cost, what? Hundreds of thousands each, maybe millions?

    If it turns out that you can make ten or twenty or more consumer-grade devices that are worse but still usable, for the same price, that starts to open up worrying new tactics and strategies. What do you do if your position get attacked by a thousand of these? What do you do if the opposing army deploys a million of them all across the front? What if they can replace lost drones at a pace of ten thousands a day? Sure, they are so crap that half of them just kill themselves, but the order of magnitude remains.

    If I were a military guy, I'd start having some pointed meetings.

    1. b0llchit Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: This is something that needs paying attention

      Combined with the research on drone swarms and control...

      No need to buy a tank or a plane. Just swarm in and blanket the area.

      [beware, the icon are swarms of drones; with jammers, of course]

      1. Filippo Silver badge

        Re: This is something that needs paying attention

        Exactly. The cost of one fighter plane buys, what, a hundred thousands consumer-grade drones? Okay, maybe twenty thousands, once you've glued a weapon or a chunk of high explosive to each of them. They are crap, but after enough zeroes, quantity acquires a quality of its own.

        1. Peter2 Silver badge

          Re: This is something that needs paying attention

          "Fighter jets" are designed to gain control of the sky by shooting down opposing fighters and tactical bombers.

          A small drone with a pistol or hand grenade glued to them can't take on a fighter jet. My prediction is that eventually you'll just get a new hierarchy of drones.

          Small drones for surveillance/artillery spotting with just a camera.

          Slightly larger drones with a laser designator for laser guidance of artillery shells.

          Larger drones than this, armed with small bombs or similar.

          Larger drones than this, equipped with sensors to detect drones and armed with a handful of anti drone weapons.

          The anti drone weapons will probably be short range (ie; a < 1 mile range going at speeds only marginally faster than the drone can fly with a small warhead suitable to down a small drone.

          When this happens then inevitably over time scope creep will kick in, and eventually the larger drones will end up humping around larger and larger weapons until they are able to damage attack helicopters, which will probably be the new top end of the "drone" hierarchy..

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: This is something that needs paying attention

            it's not that small, commercial drones take on fighter jets. If it takes a fighter jet costing an ex amount to take out a radar station, and you can do the same (or similar-level) damage by a swarm of drones that cost 1/100, or even 1/10th of the fighter jet, then your business has a very, very, very bright future with government-level contracts.

            This cost / gain discrepancy gets particularly sharp in Ukraine now, with a 100K+ launcher taking out (or doing quite some damage) to a 1 - 5M tank. And then it gets into the extreme, when the same tank-taking job is done, in relatively large numbers, by a mavic-type drone with two granades strapped to its belly. Of course, action and reaction follows, this war has given a mighty kick to the development of electronic warfare measures to defeat drones and to defend them, and we ain't seen nothing yet (bad news for us, humans).

            ...

            but I don't think consumer technology is likely to gain from this arms race, i.e. more reinforced comms. I imagine though, that the major drone-makers will have, or already have signed very juicy contracts with Chinese government / army, to produce cheap and cheerful drones to be used in future swarm attack, but they'll obviously try to make them as reinforced against countermeasures, as possible.

            Wars are exciting in this regard as they propel technologies forward so much faster. Yet, I somehow wouldn't mind if they stilll took it out on each other in 18th century style, rather than droning each other through an open window, at night. Not that those 18th cent. bullets were any more 'humane' that current ones. And majority of advances in medicine didn't happen just because the boffins were bored.

            1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

              Re: This is something that needs paying attention

              If you put enough 'small' drones in the path of a modern fighter, there's a good chance that you will get some ingested into the engine(s). And they don't even need to have significant weapons on them. Even a relatively small explosive device going off inside an engine is likely to cause enough damage to remove the plane from the field of battle, either by bringing it down, or by causing it to return to base.

              Think of it like a 'spike strip'' for aircraft.

              1. lglethal Silver badge
                Go

                Re: This is something that needs paying attention

                Drones dont fly anywhere near the height of a modern fighter jet, except maybe during take off and landing. In which case you already have big problems if a drones are that close to your airbase...

          2. jmch Silver badge

            Re: This is something that needs paying attention

            "A small drone with a pistol or hand grenade glued to them can't take on a fighter jet."

            No. But conversely, can a fighter jet take on a drone? Technically I guess yes, but at a ridiculous cost-to-benfit ratio. The aiming capabilities of their weapons systems is either against other large-ish fast-moving targets (making the relative velocity far smaller), or against giant stationary surface structures. Definitely not for targeting tiny objects made mostly of plastic with almost invisible radar / heat / metal signature.

            Even if you can lock on and take them out, it's costing you more in mission fuel for a jet than a few dozen drones, without even counting the cost of the rockets/missiles, and that of the fighter itself + maintenance.

        2. Lon24 Silver badge

          Re: This is something that needs paying attention

          Except that quantity is a replication of a commercial device you can acquire, reverse engineer and hack. Maybe locating a Chinese backdoor. Once achieved you may well be able to kill every approaching drone by simply sending the hack signal. Doesn't matter if they are deploying one or a thousand.

          If Washington hasn't done that yet then Kyiv will soon if the quantity deployed becomes significant. Hardening devices to military standards costs in time and money and Russia hasn't set a great example in military forethought.

          1. John Jennings

            Re: This is something that needs paying attention

            Not so much - I Ukraine is using them too - I saw the video of a DGI trying to drop a grenade on a russian tank.

            Difficult to use ew if both are using the same tech....

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: This is something that needs paying attention

              there's been a lot (well, relatively) of granade-dropping by Ukrainian dji-like drones. Some, by sheer luck, with spectacular success (granade dropping straight into an open hatch, or hitting a fuel tank, or into an ammo pile next to the vehicle. Others well less successful, but even a minor damage that makes a tank stop and crew run out in panic is a bonus, particularly when repair in a relatively static, artillery-controlled strip of land is not attractive to either side (though both sides capture intact or damaged hardware, repair and re-use it, if they have a chance).

          2. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: This is something that needs paying attention

            Ukrainians appear to be well-aware of the issues with non-hardened comms, particularly as both sides employ more and more of those hand-held anti-drone guns (though I have seen no 'tests' whether they really work, half-work, or pretend to work). But as they have no time to do anything about it quickly and on an industrial scale. So it appears that they do it in three domains: military-grade drones they developed themselves and received or purchased from the West. Then, they also have some, relatively low-output, workshop-level-style production line(s), where they cobble together they own drones with comms operating on different frequencies (good enough solution for most uses, apparently). And the third, largest group is just commercially available drones which have to be treated as disposable assets. I have heard no word they might have managed to hack those commercial drones and / or reinforce their comms, I only saw some hints dropped that it's not feasible, because the whole design of those toys is wrapped around a specific way to control and navigate them. But they do work hard, and with some success, on some semi-AI, drone image recognition systems to identify Russian hardware under maskirovka (which is, at times, admirable to my human eye, while in other cases, quite pityful, because it was meant against fast and high flying aircraft, not a drone).

            Unfortunately it's got to be said that while Russians are anything but 'agile', when they get a hard kick in the ass, they do get rather... resourceful, though at the moment their drone deployment is parallel to the Ukrainian one, i.e. military-grade, then home-made (hardly any, in fact, though you might count their Orlans as a hybrid of military / home-made), and commercially available off-the-shelf, non-hardened solutions.

    2. lglethal Silver badge
      Boffin

      Re: This is something that needs paying attention

      There is a lot of bloat in military hardware admittedly, but it's not as simple as buying a a ton of consumer grade devices to replace the military ones.

      Firstly, at the moment one operator can only fly one drone at a time. Yes if it gets shot down they could immediately launch another, but thats not particularly effective since the new drone still needs time to fly to where the old drone was to continue its mission, etc. But there are no actual swarm technologies currently flying. There are plenty of research projects exploring this, but there is no actual current way to fly multiple drones in a swarm in a military environment in a useful manner (the drone "firework display" type of swarm is not useful in the slightest in a military application).

      Secondly, as has been found in Ukraine, tracking of civilian drone signals back to their operators is relatively easy. This means in Ukraine most of the time, the drones are flown very fast, on a recon mission, and then the operators haul ass to avoid retaliatory artillery fire. Military drones have encrypted and hardened comms to prevent this. In addition, the technologies exist now to disable civilian drones (jamming) at considerable distances. This so far hasnt been used in Ukraine, primarily because neither side seems to have this technology in place (surprisingly), however, the technology exists and is already in place in various airports and protecting military installations in the west. I am surprised this hasnt been implemented at least partially yet, but maybe both sides like having the recon ability? Again military drones are hardened against this sort of jamming technology.

      Thirdly, civilian drones are only particularly effective at recon. They cant carry a heavy enough payload to carry a weapon that can deal a great deal of damage (in a military context), perhaps a single grenade, whereas military drones are usually much larger and designed to carry much larger weapons, up to and including multiple missiles. Just ask Afghanistan how effective those missiles can be at destroying things.

      And on the recon side, a civilian drone usually has just a single camera. Military drones, usually carry various grades of optics (infra red, higher quality optics, etc.), can fly higher and with a greater field of view, and so are much more effective at observing without being seen.

      The civilian drones have done wonders for Ukraine so far in the war, but as both sides start developing anti drone weaponry and technology, you will see the larger military drones having a much larger effect, as it did in the early days of the war when it was the large Ukrainian military drones, who effectively wiped out tank columns, with well placed missile strikes. That's not something the civilian drones will ever be able to do...

      1. RobThBay

        Re: This is something that needs paying attention

        You might want to have a look at DraganFly and Drone Delivery Canada. They both have heavy lift drones with long range capabilities. The range is even further if the drone is on a one way trip.

        1. lglethal Silver badge

          Re: This is something that needs paying attention

          True, but then you're no longer talking about the super cheap civilian drones, and have moved up into commercial level drones, which are a grade more expensive then the DJI civilian drones, are nowhere near as available, and where the suppliers probably take a bit more care as to who the end customer is.

          So your kind of talking a level in between civilian drones and military ones, with a price also in the middle. So again you wouldnt be getting a cheap and cheerful swarm of these things...

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: This is something that needs paying attention

        "(the drone "firework display" type of swarm is not useful in the slightest in a military application)."

        You could use them for night-time propaganda purposes by sky-writing "Putin is gay" across the front lines :-)

      3. JJKing

        Re: This is something that needs paying attention

        Taiwan is send very large Revolver 860 drones to Ukraine. The name indicates it carries 8 x 60mm mortar rounds so the payload is getting destructive. However it is a large drone so easy to see and therefore a lot easier to hit.

    3. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: This is something that needs paying attention

      Yes and no.

      Yes, it opens up new tactics. However, if the devices are small then they also carry a limited payload. Non military versions also tend to offer no way of hiding from radio location, which means that a functioning army with radio location equipment can tell the artillery people where the operator is to drop a 155mm artillery shell on them.

      If you deploy a million of them then this causes quite serious problems with charging, reloading and supplying them. Personally, if I was the opposition i'd simply wait until you'd deployed the lot, and then promptly blow away the local power infrastructure your using for charging, retreat a hundred miles and blow the bridges on roads between the drone force and it's resupply to complicate you resupplying. At the point you run out of either juice to charge with or munitions then they become effectively useless, and you could advance back over the top of your collection of useless drones. The military tend to say amateurs study tactics; professionals study logistics" etc.

      Logistics is always the biggest headache of any advancing army; see the utter chaos the Russian army in Ukraine caused by a simple strategy of "blow up ammunition depots".

      However the issue of large numbers of cheapish things winning against a small number of expensive things is well known; in the early 19th century the "Jeune École" school of thought was that explosive shells would doom [wooden] battleships. Then swarms of fast torpedo boats would doom battleships. It only actually happened a good century later when swarms of torpedo carrying aircraft did it; fundamentally economic power expressed by building a large number of cheap, reliable and deployable weapons that are effective against expensive stuff wins wars.

    4. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: This is something that needs paying attention

      The Ukrainians have been using civilian drones from the start. They're great for reconnaissance and short range tasks but not comparable with the military ones with ranges of 15 km and more. But they are getting better all the time.

    5. AndersH

      Re: This is something that needs paying attention

      This is basically the "tank rush" strategy from Command & Conquer.

  3. UrethralAnts

    The Australian Youtuber I Did A Thing recently strapped an MP5 to one of these exact dogs and it had a lot of trouble a) staying upright on anything but paved or flat surfaces due to the altered COG, b) was overly complex to aim and c) crucially fell over from the recoil.

    Robot dogs with freakin' guns strapped to them make for a great press piece at an expo, but I don't see them replacing us meatbags quite yet.

    1. Peter2 Silver badge

      Only because Russian designers are morons. If you actually wanted a usable vehicle along these lines then i'd start with a mobility scooter and add a half inch of armour, enough that it's bullet proof. Then add a small turret on top with your choice of weapon.

      Then in urban combat the only thing capable of dealing with it is an anti tank weapon; which have minimum arming distances for their warheads to avoid taking out people that fire them too close. Something which would be quite unfortunate if you ran into one in a building; since you couldn't damage it with gunfire and an anti tank missile worth more than the thing wouldn't explode if it hit it.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        You've seen some of the pictures from Ukraine? Most roads in combat zones would be impassable for a scooter, then there's the fields…

        But putting armour and a big gun on a scooter will severely limit mobility and range, which are key assets for drones. Use the cheap ones for what they were built for: reconnaissance (this is something the defenders of Mariupol did with great effect). Find target, relay coordinates and get the hell out. Otherwise stick a grenade on it and fly over tanks and drop it on the top. Nearly all Russian tanks are vulnerable to attacks like this and they only have about two of the ones that aren't and one of those is kept for display purposes.

        1. Peter2 Silver badge

          You did I take it read where I suggested that such a drone (or micro tankette, really) would be useful for "urban combat"?

          ie; inside towns or cities, where fields are conspicuous by their absence.

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "Only because Russian designers are morons. If you actually wanted a usable vehicle along these lines then i'd start with a mobility scooter and add a half inch of armour, enough that it's bullet proof. Then add a small turret on top with your choice of weapon."

        Then add the RC equipment and the servos to operate the steering, replace the wheels with something that won't be stopped by a low kerb or any sort of debris in it's path and you very quickly reach the point where it's cheaper and easier to start from scratch with a purpose built device rather than a Heath Robinson contraption.

        And never forget how long it took the Daleks to learn how to "negotiate" stairs!! Even poor K-9 had problems on anything other than a smooth studio floor :-)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Interesting ...

    Do you buy 1x$1,000,000 super duper killing machine.

    Or do you buy 1000x$1,000 killing machines ?

    Noting new here. Just look at what happens when humans are aplenty and cheap.

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Re: Interesting ...

      We need to define quantum drone features. 1 drone is pretty much transparent to a high speed (~short wavelength) weapon whereas 1000 well placed slow ones might be seen as a solid to the same incoming weapon.

  5. fitzpat

    DJI's own Geofencing could help

    I can see they choose to enforce no-drone zones around Ukraine airports, and in the invaded/disputed areas.

    https://www.dji.com/uk/flysafe/geo-map

    If DJI get really jumpy, just turn off the entire of Ukraine and Russia?

  6. Norman Nescio Silver badge

    Casablanca

    No doubt DJI and Unitree Robotics are "shocked, shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here their drones are being used for military purposes".

    As other commentators have pointed out, avoidance of accusations of providing military assistance to Russia would be the priority here, whatever the truth might be.

    Follow the supply chains/money to get to the truth.

    1. abstract

      Re: Casablanca

      I don't think they care this is just a case for advertising. Nothing prevents the Russian from buying these drones and nothing prevents the Ukrainians from doing the same.

  7. Martin Summers

    What a world we live in where there are expos showcasing the latest and greatest ways to kill eachother. That's essentially what it boils down to.

    1. lglethal Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Welcome to humanity...

      To quote Aristotle:

      "How ironic that the greatest forge of civilisation is war..."

      1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

        To quote Aristotle:

        “How ironic that the greatest forge of civilisation is war…”

        Which of Aristotle’s works contains this quote?

        1. lglethal Silver badge

          Re: To quote Aristotle:

          I'll put my hand up and admit I don't know. It was one of the quotes that came up on one of the very early Civ games (when you research a technology). It's always stuck with me ever since.

          1. Irony Deficient Silver badge

            Re: To quote Aristotle:

            I suspect that that quote was falsely attributed to Aristotle — much like the alleged quote of Cicero that begins “The budget should be balanced, […]” (which actually came from a historical novel that was written in the 1960s).

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Off the shelf - your downfall

    During the Afghan conflict the combatants were using consumer grade Beofeng, dual band amateur, handheld radios. These are cheap $25 radios that are incredibly versatile but unencrypted and spurious emissions. Basically a beacon and a megaphone if you had the equipment to listen in. The same I guess could be said about DJI drones. GPS easily spoofed, 2.4ghz spread spectrum communications between drone and control and largely unencrypted video relays. The Ukrainian army will probably have equipment to not only look at the backwards video of the launch but intercept the GPS traffic too. It’s not that difficult to then spoof a GPS location and have the drone immediacy land. Without encryption most equipment is open to an attack and could reveal your location using simple “TTA or time to arrival”. The same way that cell towers triangulate a mobile phones location by TTA to each tower. LoJack vehicle tracking for example uses TTA. The Police have 4 antennas on the roof of their cars and calculate when the signal arrives at each antenna to work out which direction and strength the signal is from and that’s why your transmission could also equal your death!. Sorry to go the long route but consumer grade equipment, probably not the most savvy decision. Kinda like letting of a smoke grenade in my opinion.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Off the shelf - your downfall

      Russians use Beofeng in this conflict too. Which has been a source of merriment to the Ukrainians. But then, it's a lose-lose for Russians and question of which one is more likely: do you use radios with unencrypted comms and your calls are captured and replyed by the Ukrainians to the whole world AND they might send something nasty raining on you from the sky, OR do you risk having no comms, and getting shot at by both sides. Yes, you might ask a basic question like, 'why would you have to face such a dilemma in the first place', but a partial response might come from a situation when you unwrap a dynamite stick, as you might do in a war situation, and find, carefully wrapped in paper, a piece of wood. There's a loooong chain between a USD 100K-worth, 'made in Russia' military 'orlan' drone system and the actual frame with an 800USD canon slr with dials glued in place, fuel supply fed from a pet bottle. That said, its comms are encrypted and the Ukrainians haven't managed to break / hack into the system yet.

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