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Encore: Drones are a powerful weapon in the Russia-Ukraine war


In Ukraine, technology plays a big role on the battlefield. Both sides use drones to try to gain an advantage by watching their adversaries' movements from above. NPR's Jason Beaubien spent time with a Ukrainian drone surveillance unit in southern Ukraine near Russian-occupied parts of Kherson.

SACHA: (Non-English language spoken).

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: In a patch of trees between a freshly cut wheat field and a plot of iridescent sunflowers, Sacha is sitting in the back of a camouflaged van. He's watching a video feed of a drone his team just sent into Russian-occupied territory to check on a village.

SACHA: (Through interpreter) We got this task from the intelligence this morning, so we're flying there now to check what is in this populated place - village.

BEAUBIEN: During peace times, this strip of trees would be a windbreak between the agricultural fields. Now it's dotted with coffin-sized pits for Sacha and his colleagues to dive into in case the Russians start shelling their mobile base.

SACHA: (Through interpreter) The groups of air intelligence are usually hunted because we are the eyes. What we see you can't see with the binoculars.

BEAUBIEN: This Ukrainian drone unit is named Karlson, after a flying character from a popular Swedish children's book. They've allowed us to visit them under the condition that we don't disclose their full names or location. They have various small drones that you can buy at an electronics store for a few thousand dollars. On this day, they're operating their largest fixed-wing drone, which they raised tens of thousands of dollars to purchase online. It looks like a miniature plane with a camera mounted on its nose. As the drone scans the village, Sacha says it appears most of the residents have fled.

SACHA: (Through interpreter) Oh, and - you can see the cows. You know, they do not belong to anyone anymore.

BEAUBIEN: Amidst the wandering animals and deserted houses, he spots what could be a dug-in Russian tank. Sacha makes a note of its position. He says, later, he'll review the high-definition video recording being stored on board the drone and zoom in closer on the potential tank.

In this section of the front lines, cell phone and GPS signals are being jammed by both the Russians and the Ukrainians. The Karlson team uses a mobile Starlink connection donated by Elon Musk's satellite-based internet company. If they see a potential target, they use the Starlink connection to communicate with other military units.

SACHA: (Through interpreter) Sometimes, if we see the convoy, for example, we are in touch with artillery unit, and we give them the coordinates, and they start shelling.

BEAUBIEN: The war in Ukraine is predominantly an artillery war, stretching for hundreds of miles along a front line in eastern and southern Ukraine. The head of the Karlson team calls artillery the fist of war, and drones help that fist punch more accurately. The Karlson team is officially a territorial defense unit. It's made up of 23 volunteers, all men, mostly in their 30s, from the Dnipro area. Prior to the Russian invasion, none of them had military experience.

PLAYBOY: Everybody was civilian.

BEAUBIEN: The commander of the unit, who goes by the name Playboy, used to run his own business.

PLAYBOY: We have a technical specialist, IT specialist.

BEAUBIEN: Sacha used to be a politician.

Denis Pasko, who is not part of the Karlson unit, trains Ukrainian soldiers on using drones both for surveillance and, in his words, "to drop explosives on the Russians' heads." Even if some of the drones are sold on Amazon as toys, he says, this is serious, dangerous combat.

DENIS PASKO: You need to be close to the front line, so it's really dangerous. And if anybody knows your position, you can be dead.

BEAUBIEN: Drones can quickly and safely do what used to be the job of human reconnaissance squads. But Pasko says if a drone is caught by the enemy, it can give away a lot of information.

PASKO: It have the geo-position of the operator, and it can keep history from the turning on and a history of all the places where it was flying, where it was searching for something, and all that video.

BEAUBIEN: The Karlson unit, in addition to doing surveillance, is also trying to track and intercept Russian drones. It's an aerial game of spy vs. spy. But Sacha says the work also involves a lot of hours of sitting in a van, hidden in the trees, watching a raw video stream on a laptop.

SACHA: (Through interpreter) So this is our task. We sit the whole day and watch, and then we come back to the base and watch it thoroughly.

BEAUBIEN: In the distance, shells can be heard exploding. Sacha doesn't so much as look up from the laptop. Outgoing, he mutters. One of the other team members is practicing throwing a knife at a tree. Sasha keeps scanning the video monitor as the drone keeps scanning the village across the front line. Jason Beaubien, NPR News, in southern Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.