Ukraine’s 24/7 battlefield drone operation: 'Whoever wins the tech race, will win the war': Reporter's Notebook
The Punisher has a range of 25 miles and can carry 5.5 pounds of explosives.
Drone warfare in Ukraine is quickly evolving, according to Robert “Madyar,” a former Ukrainian businessman who now commands one of the country’s best known military drone regiments.
The “UAV Birds of Madyar” operation started off with a handful of commercial off-the-shelf drones in the early days of the war, which began in February 2022.
“We wanted to see who was shooting at us and killing us,” “Madyar” explained to ABC News during an interview at his command center in a secret location in eastern Ukraine.
Today, his soldiers, who sit in front of a wall of screens inside the regiment’s headquarters, can, at any one time, tap into dozens of separate live drone video feeds. Each one gives his soldiers a view of the frontlines in their sector.
One of the men, Denys, describes himself as “the bridge” between different military components, feeding information to Ukrainian intelligence, artillery units and troops on the ground.
A short drive away, hidden in a narrow strip of woodland is one of the regiment’s mobile reconnaissance units.
Their van is parked among the trees and sheltered from view from enemy drones by a large green camouflage net.
Inside the back of the van is another array of screens. Some are tablet-sized, some are the size of a large-screen TV.
The team repeatedly flies its fixed-wing propeller-propelled UAV, complete with a high-resolution camera, over the Russian lines.
The drone has a range of about 20 miles, easily enough to fly well beyond enemy positions.
Meanwhile, back inside their van, the men then scour the drone’s video feed, hunting for high-value enemy targets such as Russian artillery pieces or trucks loaded with ammunition.
The reconnaissance teams fly their drones day and night, logging the coordinates of each potential target, together with an image, on an interactive map.
One single mission can yield as many as 30 separate targets, one soldier boasts, and the information about a target is sent to the unit’s commanders “as quickly as possible,” he adds.
“Because while those cars, vehicles and tanks are still there, we can hit them,” he says.
Information about a very high value target might be passed to Ukrainian artillery units operating nearby.
However, the UAV Birds of Madyar regiment also has its own attack drone units, which, like the reconnaissance teams, are hidden in woodland in the same area of the battle zone.
Engineering companies in Ukraine are constantly designing and manufacturing new types of drones to use in the war, like the Punisher drone.
The Punisher has a range of 25 miles and can carry five and a half pounds of explosive inside a small bomb, which is attached to the underside of the drone.
The small bomb isn’t enough to destroy a Russian armored vehicle, however the aim is to render it inoperable by causing enough damage.
Before each mission, the coordinates of a target are programmed into the drone and the payload is released as it flies overhead.
Unlike other drones, the Punisher does not emit an electronic signal which enemy units could detect, say the soldiers.
In flight it is silent and, and like many drones, hard to spot once it is airborne.
However, electronic jamming by Russian forces sometimes prevents the Punisher from dropping its payload at the right moment, which can cause it to miss its target.
ABC News watched as a Punisher drone dropped its small bomb over a Russian checkpoint as it missed the main target area and failed to cause any damage.
The drone team showed us other videos, which, according to the soldiers, showed Punisher drones earlier that morning accurately dropping their payload onto Russian military vehicles.
The Ukrainian UAV regiment also attaches explosives to First-Person View (FPV) drones.
An FPV drone pilot wears a headset which gives him or her the view from the drone’s camera, allowing the drone to be flown and maneuvered at high speed.
The Ukrainian military flies FPV drones, packed with explosives, into a target and it detonates on impact. The drone reconnaissance unit showed ABC News another video showing fire, smoke and destruction across an area of woodland. The Ukrainian soldiers said it showed the aftermath of an FPV drone attack on a Russian artillery piece, which had been destroyed the previous night.
The reconnaissance teams and attack drone teams rely on Starlink satellites for their communications.
“Lots of things have been said about Elon Musk,” Commander Robert “Madyar” tells us. “But without Starlink, we would have lost the war.”
However, producing the most efficient reconnaissance and attack drones, with the best network of military experts to operate them is only part of the challenge because the ability of the Russian military to jam and spoof drones is also a real problem.
Jamming is when a transmission-blocking signal is used to disrupt communications between a drone and its pilot. Spoofing is when someone emits a signal, confusing your drone and taking control of it remotely by impersonating its remote control.
Commander Madyar said access to more Western jamming and spoofing technologies were needed to help Ukraine win the drone battle, and, ultimately, the war.
As one of his colleagues put it, “whoever wins the tech race, wins the war.”
Several Ukrainian commanders have warned that Russia has a large stock of its explosive attack Lancet drones which are proving to be a big threat to Ukrainian forces during its counteroffensive.
Meanwhile, Ukraine is increasing its own production of reconnaissance and attack drones.
However, the bombs for the Punisher drones are “still being produced by our experts in a garage,” drone commander Robert Madyar said.
Madyar, a former millionaire grain trader with a passion for deep sea fishing, said the continuation of Western military support for Ukraine would be key and he vowed that his team, made-up of people who were only in non-military professions before the war, would “keep fighting to the last breath.”
“If we have to move to the Carpathians (mountains in western Ukraine) and be partisans there, then this is what we will do”, he told ABC News. “But this will mean that the Russian army will be at the gate of NATO. This is what we are fighting for.”