A Chinese drone for hobbyists plays a crucial role in the Russia-Ukraine war There's lots of talk about China supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine. But one Chinese product already plays a key battlefield role - a cheap, popular, off-the-shelf, commercial drone.

A Chinese drone for hobbyists plays a crucial role in the Russia-Ukraine war

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There's a lot of talk about China possibly supplying weapons to Russia for its war in Ukraine, but one Chinese product already plays a critical role on the battlefield. NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre explains.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: It's part of the soundtrack of the war in Ukraine.


MYRE: That's the distinctive buzzing of a drone, this one made by the Chinese company DJI. The drone costs just $2,000 or so. It's easy to fly, widely available and hugely popular worldwide among civilians. It's also a hot commodity for troops on both sides of the war in Ukraine.

FAINE GREENWOOD: Before this war, people mostly used them to play around with things for experimental purposes - for things like, you know, can I drop a water bottle? You see these videos on YouTube.

MYRE: Faine Greenwood is a researcher based in Boston. She's documenting drone use in Ukraine based largely on videos that appear on social media.

GREENWOOD: The Ukrainians and the Russians, too, have figured out ways to modify these devices they've purchased online to make more and more creative ways to drop explosives from these small consumer drones.

MYRE: Greenwood has logged more than a thousand cases over the past year and can identify the type of drone used in half of them. By far the most popular for both reconnaissance and for attacks are the DJI commercial drones made in China. They account for more than half that Greenwood has been able to identify. This is happening even though DJI announced a year ago that it would not sell drones to Ukraine or Russia because of the fighting.

GREENWOOD: They have explicitly always said that they only make drones for civilian purposes, so they've never sold to - they don't sell to militaries. They don't market to militaries.

MYRE: In an email to NPR, DJI says it's aware some of its drones are sent to Russia and Ukraine after they're purchased in other countries. The company says it opposes this practice but has no way of stopping it. And DJI drones are very easy to get - just check out Amazon. And they continue to make their way to the frontlines in Ukraine. Kelly Grieco is with the Stimson Center in Washington.

KELLY GRIECO: When most Americans think about drone warfare, the image, I think, that comes to mind is from the global war on terror, which were military-grade, sophisticated, expensive capabilities that were used to strike particularly at high-value targets.

MYRE: The reality is very different in Ukraine.

GRIECO: What we're seeing is that there's a commercial drone market that has emerged, and these, you know, drones are essentially flying cameras. They're very useful to provide eyes on a battlefield.

MYRE: DJI drones aren't made to fire weapons, but they can be easily modified to carry a grenade or other small explosive, which can be dropped with great precision into trenches filled with troops or directly into the open top of a tank. Ukrainian troops began using these drones early on and post videos daily on Twitter, Telegram and other social media. In turn, these videos help Ukrainian groups fundraise to buy more drones. Again, Kelly Grieco.

GRIECO: Ukraine's been very successful in creating a strategic narrative to really keep Western support. Part of that is showing that it's a viable adversary, that they have spunk. And a lot of that gets communicated with these drone videos.

MYRE: At the start of the war, Russia tried and failed to establish air superiority with its fighter jets. Now it's turned to a cheaper option. Russia uses military drones made in Iran to carry out attacks and DJI drones mostly for surveillance. While DJI drones are constantly in the skies over Ukraine, they do have limitations, mostly linked to the life of their batteries. They only travel about five miles. They stay aloft for less than an hour. They can only carry a light explosive. Andrey Liscovich heads the Ukraine Defense Fund, a private group helping the military.

ANDREY LISCOVICH: The downside of these drones is that they can be shot out of the sky with the rifles because when they do these drops, they have to be not very high - maybe 70 to 100 meters. And at that range, you can use an AK-47 to hit it if you are a decent shot.

MYRE: Liscovich was born in Ukraine and has a doctorate from Harvard and was an executive at Uber in California. But when Russia invaded last year, he dropped everything to assist Ukraine's military. He's working with Western tech companies to develop drones that can fly further and stay aloft longer. The goal is a real-time view of the battlefield for longer-range Ukrainian artillery fired at Russian positions. Another big challenge is to build systems that can't be jammed electronically by Russia, says Liscovich. He spoke to NPR from the eastern city of Zaporizhzhia.

LISCOVICH: So you need to constantly play this arms race game with the enemy.

MYRE: Still, drones are already doing things hard to imagine until they happen. Recently, a Russian fighter surrendered to a Ukrainian drone, which filmed the capitulation. The Ukrainians posted the video along with instructions on how other Russian soldiers could do the same. It's part of their project they call I Want To Live.

Greg Myre, NPR News.

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