A ScanEagle reconnaissance drone in flight.
You’re getting something a little different this morning. We’ll catch up with events on the ground through updates, and if there is a big change along one of the fronts today, there will be a second Ukraine update, so that this one doesn’t smack up against the limit on how long a single story can be (yes, there is one).
But for now, we’re going to get the first draft, of the first part, of the first edition of something I’ve been promising for more than a week now—the guide to drones currently being utilized in Ukraine.
Most of the weapons systems seen in Ukraine fall neatly into categories that have also been around for many decades. A T-90 might not slot perfectly into any World War II definition of light, medium, or heavy, but no one would have any difficulty putting it down as a tank. Other systems, like handheld anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, have evolved so much over recent years that, while they are still recognizably the outgrowth of mid-20th century ancestors, they’ve taken on whole new tactical roles.
However, if there’s any type of military system that is really coming into its own as the invasion of Ukraine progresses, it’s drones. What’s happening with drones in Ukraine shows just how new this technology really is on the battlefield. Sure, Predator drones were used in the invasion of Afghanistan, and if you really want to get down to brass tacks, the history of drones might be extended back to 1849, when Austria sent a force of balloons carrying long burning fuses drifting toward Venice.
However, it’s in Ukraine that drones are really getting their first heavy duty trial by fire. Unlike tanks or artillery, there are new drones being developed specifically for this war. Multiple new drones.
When it comes to the evolution of military systems, drones are on the fast track and Ukraine is their Galapagos—the place where they are most obviously diverging “from so simple a beginning into endless forms.” Though it’s highly debatable as to whether any of these forms are either beautiful or wonderful. That may be a question for future generations of humans to answer. Or future generations of drones.
To put it bluntly, the official way in which the U.S. military and other federal agencies break down drones into categories sucketh rocks. Most seem to be more concerned about rules by which they can be grouped together for purposes of funding, often by little more than size and cost. Or they’re concerned about weight, but not function or shape. Neither of these ways of categorizing is particularly useful in identifying a drone.
It’s easy to imagine an article categorizing drones along any of a number of categories: range, size, function, nation of origin, etc. However, for this guide the primary way in which they are to broken down is simple enough: What do they look like?
Basic drone forms
Why pick form as the most basic factor? Because if you’re really intending to be a field guide, it doesn’t do much good to break things down by nation of origin, or even weapons type. Neither of those things is going to help much when you look up in the sky and think what the hell is that?
Form is the first visual thing that helps to identify a drone. So we’re starting with that. When you see, for example, that a Orlan-10 is a paired fixed wing drone, of that a DJI Mini 3 is a quad rotor drone, that’s a good start. Size, function, and all those other things can follow.
We’re also going to avoid, where possible, much of the terminology usually involved with this subject, from UAV to “loitering munition.” If all that happens when you hear a term is that your brain immediately converts into “drone” and “kamikaze,” why not just go to the common term straight away and avoid the extra jargon?
This first pass at a field guide is lacking some of the things I had imagined when first having this idea — maps of locations where drones had been used, a silhouette card to show relative shapes and sizes, neat little tables of specs for each drone, and for whole groups of drones. Hopefully, if this proves useful enough (i.e. draws enough eyeballs), those things will come in another pass.
For now … let’s get to the drones, or at least to all the drones that fit in this part.
Paired Wing Drones
|Leleka-100 / RAM II||Ukraine||Reconnaissance+||45km|
|Penguin C||Latvia / U.S.||Reconnaissance||100km|
|Phoenix Ghost||United States||Kamikaze||n/a|
|Switchblade 300||United States||Kamikaze||10km|
|Switchblade 600||United States||Kamikaze||40km|
Paired Wing Drones
These are the drones that look most like a traditional manned aircraft. Because they are winged craft, they tend to be less maneuverable and precise than a rotor-craft (i.e. they can’t hover or land vertically, except by parachute), however they also tend to have much greater range. This type of drone include representatives of almost every functional class, and also feature some of the largest drones, along with some of the smaller.
The larger drones in this class come close to mimicking full-sized, manned aircraft in terms of being weapons platforms and offering sophisticated reconnaissance tools. However, it’s the smaller drones that are growing in number and changing more rapidly. Their low cost and mostly off-the-shelf parts means that they can be easily modified and iterated into new versions. Technologies like 3D printing mean that not only software, but hardware, is subject to rapid change.
Of all the drones working Ukraine, it may be the kamikaze drones that offer the most potential to change warfare. They’re rapidly replacing guided missiles as the tool of choice to hit a target, both near the front line and at a distance, and they do so with a fraction of the cost of their rocket-powered equivalent.
Bayraktar TB2 [Turkey, combat, 300km]
The first drone to become famous during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was definitely the Turkish-made Bayraktar. Early in the war, as Russia seemed to be advancing at will, overrunning large areas of Ukraine, the Bayraktar’s variety of weapons and relatively long range supplied much needed small victories and gave Ukrainians something to cheer. The relative worth of the drone in the invasion may have diminished as more weapons poured into Ukraine, but the love of Ukrainians for the hope this drone inspired has not faltered. It’s not every drone that gets not just one, but two theme songs. (If you haven’t listened to them, go do so now.)
What gave the Bayraktar an edge over every other drone when it comes to defending Ukraine, is that it was there when the war began. Ukraine purchased 12 Bayraktars and three ground control stations from Turkey in 2019. They had time to not just deploy these drones, but gain some expertise before Russia rolled in. Turkey also made an agreement for the production of 48 more Bayraktars in Ukraine. By the time the war began in earnest, Ukraine had approximately 20 of these drones, several of which had been made in Ukraine. So it has connotations of both ties to a NATO member, and being a home town champ.
Bayraktar TB2 combat drone at Lithuanian air base in July 2022.
Ukraine began overflying parts of Russian occupied territory in Ukraine months before the Feb. 2022 invasion began, using the Bayraktar as a reconnaissance platform. In 2021, it even used one of the Bayraktar’s surface-to-ground missiles to take out Russian artillery in the occupied Donbas region that had been shelling locations in the rest of Ukraine.
Production Bayraktars are fairly pricy items (estimated $5M when purchased whole from Turkey, $2M for those made in Ukraine), but they carry a variety of weapons and sophisticated systems. Compared to other drones with similar range of capabilities, or to a piloted plane packing similar weapons, they’re regarded as a bargain.
The versions of the Bayraktar deployed in Ukraine appear to be hardened against e-combat techniques and have been resistant to having their controls overridden. Features include a very modern MX-15D targeting system from Canadian manufacturer Wescam, U.K.-made Hornet bomb racks, and a wide variety of missiles. Some optional weapons are designed as anti-armor, others for area attack. Some of these weapons are also capable of tracking down radar systems.
The list of equipment taken out by Bayraktars at this point — tanks, transports, artillery, radar dishes, anti-aircraft guns, and far more — is essentially identical to the list of systems that are present in Ukraine. Recently, there were reports that the Bayraktar is going to be fitted with air-to-air weapons especially intended to allow it to go after kamikaze drones such as the Iranian-made Shahed 136.
The name Bayraktar doesn’t come from some Turkish myth and it’s not the Turkish word for some animal. Instead, it’s the last name of Selçuk Bayraktar, who designed his first drones as an MIT grad student and now serves as the company’s Chief Technology Officer. Following its performance in Ukraine, sales of this drone have reportedly been brisk. To date, Bayraktar has built over 300.
Bayraktar Mini [Turkey, Reconnaissance, 30km]
Its big brother may get all the press (and singing), but Bayraktar has actually made and sold more of these hand-launched reconnaissance drones than it has of its far more expensive flying weapons platform.
The mini has the advantage of breaking down into a fairly small package to be carried around, and its optical system — including a 10x optical zoom — allows it to spot positions to within a few meters on the ground while maintaining a relatively high altitude. Optionally, it can also pack a FLIR infrared camera and the control system reportedly does a good job of merging visual and infrared images.
Bayraktar Mini being hand-launched
Like all the other reconnaissance drones on this list, it’s rarely the star of the show. But what’s made precision-guided munitions so amazingly effective (including St. HIMARS) has been coordinates provided by drones like this one. However, the precision of the Bayraktar Mini is not quite up to the leaders in this area (which could represent limits on its ability to merge coordinates from both GPS and Galileo satellites it fixes, and whether it combines that with any ground signals.
In any case, the Bayraktar Mini has features that will seem familiar to advanced users of consumer drones. For example, it can be provided with a series of coordinates and will navigate a route automatically. It also has the kind of buffered smart controls you might hope for when steering a winged drone around in tough conditions (i.e. it won’t let you stall it or put it in a spin). If things go wrong, the Mini will attempt to return home automatically. If things go really wrong, it will deploy a built in parachute. The 30km range is mostly due to communications, and the drone could potentially use that route-following scheme to collect information farther away, but with a 120 minute limit on flight time, that’s a chancy mission. So far, just one Bayraktar Mini has been documented as lost by Ukraine.
There’s another Bayraktar coming that looks set to outclass the Mini when it comes to observation, but it’s more on par with the big radar-packing drones like the Forpost-R than smaller drones like the Mini or the WB Group’s FlyEye. Plus it’s a quad-propped wing-a-copter hybrid that’s designed to bring both the long-flight, gliding capability of wings with the maneuverability of a quadcopter. Don’t be surprised if it makes an appearance soon.
FlyEye [Poland, reconnaissance, 50km]
Manufacturer WB Group considers the FlyEye a “mini” reconnaissance drone, but with a wingspan of 3.6m (11.8’), this is Mini only in the same sense as the Bayraktar Mini. It isn’t something designed to sneak around inside a building or between the trunks of trees. However, the weight of the FlyEye is still low enough to be hand-launched, making it a decent choice for reconnaissance in areas near the front. It’s also supposed to be low-noise, meaning that it can cruise along at a relatively low altitude to produce better results on locating targets. Unlike many drones this size, it uses an electric motor, rather than a gas engine.
FlyEye drone being launched by hand.
The FlyEye is designed to travel up to 60km (120km with upgrades) at altitudes of as much as 3000m. Most importantly, it can glide on those big wings to stay aloft for over two hours, making it an effective platform for observing movements and guiding precision armament. That ability is helped by a combination of both visible light and IR cameras, meaning that the FlyEye can remain effective for night use. If all this sounds very similar to the Bayraktar Mini, they definitely fill a similar niche.
In addition to those eyes, the FlyEye also packs an ear — a directional acoustic sensor. That allows the drone to identify the location of weapon fire. As with many reconnaissance systems, the controller and software that come with the FlyEye are capable of translating the location of those sounds, and of the images it captures, into coordinates that can be feed into smart weapons systems.
The drone is in use by Ukrainian forces, though it’s not clear if any of them have come from official sources. Instead, five of the FlyEye were purchased from WB Group by the fundraising project “Army of Drones.” Of those five drones, two appear to have been destroyed by ground fire from Russian forces in June and July.
Forpost-R [Russia, Reconnaissance, 300km]
The Forpost-R is a highly capable reconnaissance drone manufactured in Russia under license from Israel. With a wingspan of over 8.5m (28’) it’s not something that can be launched by hand, or really from any simple system near the front. Instead, this is a wheeled drone launched from a road or runway well behind the lines. However, with a cruising speed of around 150kph and a maximum time aloft of18 hours, the Forpost-R doesn’t have to start out near the lines to get wherever its needed.
Forpost-R is roughly the size of a small private plane.
The Forpost-R is actually a licensed, produced-in-Russia version of the Israeli IAI Searcher, which has been in service since 1992. The Searcher was, in turn, based on the earlier IAI Scout, which goes all the way back to the 1970s (the Searcher is essentially a “scaled up” Scout, capable of carrying several times the payload).
Where many smaller reconnaissance drones are essentially camera platforms, the Forpost is more like a mini-AWACS plane, carrying both day and night cameras, radar, acoustic sensors, and more. One typical payload is a camera pod from Quantum Optics that includes a variety of both visual, infrared, and thermal cameras in a gimbled arrangement (see that ball under the drone in the image). Versions of the drone have been sold or licensed to several countries, including Turkey and Canada, but there don’t seem to be any of the Forpost’s licensed cousins in service on the Ukrainian side.
Russia used these large drones in Syria, as well as Ukraine, but it’s not clear just how many they actually have. At least two have been shot down in Ukraine, while another apparently crashed on its own.
Lastochka-M [Russia, BOMBER, Unknown]
The Lastochka-M is an unusual combat drone in that it carries a single bomb, like many modified consumer quadcopters, only it’s not a quadcopter or a consumer drone. It’s a custom-made drop one bomb and come back design that has only a few peers.
This is a thin drone with a wingspan of about 2.5m and a mass of about 5 kg. Video from Russian television channel Zvezda shows that it is launched using a rail system, and that’s … about all that’s know about it. Ukraine has captured at least one of these devices (apparently one that landed after losing communications rather than being shot down), but there doesn’t seem to be any good information on range or other capabilities.
Leleka-100 / RAM II [Ukraine, Reconnaissance / Kamikaze, 50km]
The Leleka-100 is a small, fully automatic drone from Ukrainian company DEVIRO that is reportedly ready to fly out of the box and requires nothing more than coordinates to complete take off, survey, take images, collect coordinates of targets, and come back for a self-guided landing. It’s available in both industrial and military versions, which seem to include the same removable / replaceable camera system that lets the user snap in different capabilities (including thermal cams) as needed. The Ukrainian military has been using these systems since at least 2015, and they’ve reportedly been paired with both artillery / MLRS.
Sure, it looks peaceful now, but wait until it takes its nose off.
However, the really unique thing about the Leleka-100 is that it’s kind of a flying werewolf. In the hands of another Ukrainian company, RamUAV, this mild-mannered drone is transformed into something wholly different. By snapping off the camera-laden nose, snapping in a warhead, and making some adjustments around the tail, the chunky little Leleka-100 turns into the longer and considerably more deadly RAM II kamikaze drone.
Yes, this drone is built off the drone above. Only its meaner.
That drone packs a 3kg warhead, and RamUAV offers considerable choice of “flavor.” Warheads can include a HEAT round (High-Explosive Anti-Tank), a high explosive fragmentation round best used for a number of lightly-armored targets (like people), and even a thermobaric bomb. That last one may be unique.
Existing familiarity with the Leleka-100 is expected to make the RAM-II more readily accepted by Ukrainian forces. This is clearly a mid-sized kamikaze, not something that can be stuffed into a backpack, but that larger warhead is likely to make up for the fact that it, and its suitcase-sized flight station, are likely to be living in a truck.
The Leleka-100 is one of the most frequently lost Ukrainian drones, with at least six of them having been lost so far. However, it’s a widely-used drone, so that number may not reflect any lack of stealth on this drone’s part.
Merlin-VR [Russia, Reconnaissance, 200km]
The Merlin-VR is one of several Russian mystery drones that known mostly from looking at the pieces of examples shot down by the Ukrainian military. In this case, the largish reconnaissance drone apparently packs a hybrid gas / electric engine driving a pusher prop, allowing the Merlin to use power to gain altitude then glide or run silently when closer to the earth. The combination can reportedly keep the UAV aloft for over 10 hours and give it a range of 100-200km. It’s more likely to be limited by communications.
Merlin-VR is reportedly launched with a slingshot system.
Early Russian announcements of what’s presumed to be the same drone as the wreckage indicate that the drone is designed to be a high flyer, operating at altitudes of 5km, and utilizes a high resolution camera. A radar system is also mentioned, but not apparent in in wreckage of the recovered drone. What is present is a parachute system, probably intended to bring the drone to earth in case of engine or communications failure.
Despite being rather chunky, the Merlin-VR is reportedly launched using a slingshot system, so it doesn’t require a runway. It seems to have nothing in the way of landing gear, so a belly landing (or deploying that parachute) seems like the only options. Exact specs on its size and weight are not available.
The Merlin is reportedly being used in helping to provide targets for Russian kamikaze drones in Ukraine, though it’s not clear how many are present. The first examples of the Merlin-VR were shown off at a Russian arms expo just two weeks before the invasion began.
Mohajer-6 [Iran, Reconnaissance+, 2000km]
The Mohajer-6 is another large reconnaissance drone that comes more from the school of airplane without a pilot than RC model turned military. This is a gas powered craft with a full 10m wingspan. That makes it almost identical in size to a Cessna 150, only the Mohajer-6 is a good deal sleeker, and it turns all that would-be cockpit space into fuel tank. That’s how it manages an astounding range of between 2000 and 2500km (though the operator better remember to program in the flight path in advance, as communications range from the ground station is about 200km).
Mohaher-6 at defense exhibit in Tehran
As with many of these large, long duration, long distance, high altitude drones, the Mohajer is capable of carrying not just a camera, but an entire “multispectrum pod” of sensing instruments. That includes a high resolution camera, a zoom camera, a navigation camera, an IR camera, a thermal camera, and a laser range finder. When a drone has a payload capacity of 150kg, those instruments can be packed in.
The reason that this drone is Reconnaissance+ rather than just Reconnaissance, is that it also comes in models that tuck 2 or 4 missiles under those wide wings, though for the most common armament, missile isn’t quite the right term. Iran pairs these drones with the surface to air Qaem, which is actually a “glide bomb” that can self-guide to a laser or GPS-designated target.
In Ukraine, the Mohajer-6 is being used by Russia, apparently in concert with the Shahed 136 as a means of both locating targets for, and evaluating damage done by, the Iranian-made kamikaze drones. As with other Iranian drones, Russia has denied flying these devices over Ukraine. And as with other such claims, that’s pretty ludicrous as Ukraine has recovered at least one example intact.
Orlan-10 [Russia, Reconnaissance+, 110km]
If there is one drone that really defines the invasion of Ukraine, it’s not the Iranian Shahed 136, or the Turkish Bayraktar TB2; It’s the Russian Orlan-10. Why? Because Russia has flown hundreds of them in Ukraine. It’s flown them singly, it’s flown then in pairs, its flown them in formations designed to cover a battlefield from different angles and heights. Russia has flown a lot of Orlan-10s, and despite a special composite skin that’s supposed to protect the drone from radar, and a special propeller design that’s supposed to make it silent, Ukraine has shot a lot of them down.
Russian soldiers preparing to launch a series of Orlan-10 drones
As of October, at least 92 Orlan-10 drones had been shot down, or simply come down, across Ukraine. There’s not likely to be a shortage, as Russia has cranked out over 1,000. There are also dozens of variants of this drone, some of them apparently designed around different chip sets and motors which may (or may not) represent a shortage of some components.
Like many other drones in the category, the Orlan-10 has detachable wings, making it easier to box up and take into the field. But it’s definitely more of a “truck portable” rather than “man portable” as it comes in a large, unwieldy box. The launching system for the Orlan-10 involves a kind of a folding catapult / cradle system — though the drone can reportedly also be hand-launched in a pinch. It lands by returning to the launch area and deploying a parachute, which is one reason that this drone is very unsuited for use when windspeeds are over 10m/s.
Though by far the majority of Orlan-10 drones shot down in Ukraine have been outfitted for reconnaissance, at least one was found to be carrying four detachable grenades. In Syria, some Orlan-10s were outfitted as kamikaze weapons, with at least one successful kill on a well known opponent of Bashar Assad. A version of this drone that’s been shot down at least twice includes a number of cameras apparently related to terrain mapping. This version has been referred to as the Orlan-20. Two other versions have picked up the names Orlan-30 and Orlan-50. The Orlan-50 (actually a pair of shot-down drones, names unknown) is notable for having twin engines.
With a boxy look that makes it seem more like an R/C plane than a modern drone and the obviously rough level of construction, it’s easy to dismiss the Orlan-10 as primitive and outdated. This isn’t even it first appearance in Ukraine, as several were shot down during the 2014 invasion. The 3.1m wingspan and 110km effective range put it solidly in the middle of medium-sized, fixed wing reconnaissance drones. It’s a bit ponderous in the air, and reportedly easily taken down with a rifle. It’s nothing special … except that Russia has a lot of them, is familiar with their use, and has learned how to deploy them in groups to search for opponents on the battlefield. Even without the support of weapons to follow up with a precisely targeted hit, equipment and infantry spotted within artillery range are in for a very bad day.
Orion [Russia, Reconnaissance+, 250km]
The Orion is actually a family of drones, all made by Russian company Kronshtadt. With a relatively enormous 16m wingspan (52.5’) these are some of the largest drones involved on either side of the war. There is even a larger version, weighing in at over 5,000kg when fully fueled, that was tested by Russia in 2020, though it’s unclear if any of these flying elephant drones are actually soaring over Ukraine.
The regular Orion weighs over 1,000kg, and it’s the small one.
As with other large drones, the Orion isn’t a system designed to be deployed from the front lines. It’s not portable. Not even really truck portable. Instead, it’s intended to be launched from a road or runway well back from the conflict zone, counting on long range and endurance to reach areas of interest.
Also as with other large reconnaissance drones, the Orion carries a large suite of tools, including multi-spectral cameras, laser range finder, and terrain mapping radar. It’s also advertised as offering a selection of electronic warfare tools, helping to jam the signal of other drones and interfere with communications. Finally, as it seems to do with all its reconnaissance drones, Russia has also outfitting some Orions with bombs, as well as claiming that it would be eventually used as a combat drone, with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles.
Some of the reported specifications for the Orion seem contradictory. For example, it reportedly has satellite communications and a 24 hour flight time. However its operational range is listed at just 250km — something it could manage in just over an hour at its listed top speed. It’s more likely that the operational range of the Orion is much greater than indicated here (the cruise speed would indicate a range more like 1400km). The Orion, like the Mohajer-6, might be used to accompany Shahed 136 kamikaze drones to help in targeting and post-strike evaluation. However, right now it seems as if only a couple of dozen Orions exist in any configuration. Two of those have been destroyed in Ukraine.
So while this appears to be a capable drone, it might not currently be a very significant factor in the war. It’s unclear if any more are being made.
Penguin C [Latvia / United States, Reconnaissance, 100km]
Who would name a flying drone after a flightless bird? Formerly Latvia-based, now fully U.S.-owned Edge Autonomy. That name certainly hasn’t put off customers, as versions of the Penguin have been sold in an astounding 43 countries.
Proof that this Penguin can fly.
The Penguin C is targeted as much at the industrial market as at the military. While it’s size (3.3m wingspan) may put it solidly in the range of other medium-sized reconnaissance drones, it relatively low weight (25kg) is designed to keep it friendly to regulatory agencies like the FAA in the US and ITAR in Europe.
It uses a catapult system for launch. Which isn’t as convenient as hand launching, but means that no runway is required. Landings are accomplished with a combo parachute and airbag system, something to keep in mind when considering wind conditions.
Edge offers some extremely sophisticated instrument clusters that fit into the Penguin’s gimbaled pod, but the real trick for this drone may be the engine. Most drones in this class pick between a not-so-long-running electric or a not-so-quiet gas motor, and with a 2-stroke motor, the Penguin appears to have gone for the later. However, the custom fuel-injected engine has a reputation for relative silence (i.e. it will not sound like a weed whacker cruising overhead, as does the Orlan-10), and it is certainly a fuel sipper. An earlier version of this drone achieved a run time over 50 hours, and flight time on the Penguin is rated at 20+. The drone flies relatively slowly (70kph cruise), but with that kind of flight time, the operating range is more about communications than running out of gas.
Ukraine is known to have lost at least one Penguin C so far in the invasion, which may have been captured by Russian forces using anti-drone electronic warfare tools.
Phoenix Ghost [United States, Kamikaze, n/a]
On November 2, the United States announced that it was sending 1,100 more Phoenix Ghost drones to Ukraine. This follows 120 drones that were sent over the summer. And yet … I still don’t know what it looks like. Every single article discussing the Phoenix Ghost routinely stubs in an image of the Switchblade 300 or 600. We know that this drone is being manufactured for the U.S. by Aevex Aerospace, that it was rapidly dreamed up with modifications expressly to address the situation in Ukraine, and that it is, like the Switchblade, an automated kamikaze drone capable of seeking and striking a single target.
We presume it looks like this.
We don’t know its range, its payload, or even if it really fits in this section of the guide. The one potential image of the drone that I have seen shows a paired wing drone with more swept back wings than the Switchblade, mounted on a launcher that’s more like a launching spike than a launching tube. However, I can’t be 100% certain that this image actually reflects a Phoenix Ghost. Russia also doesn’t seem to have rushed forward with anything that’s supposed to be the guts of an unexploded Ghost, which is something that very much might be expected. However, there are videos that have been released as early as August showing a drone strike that seems to indicate that this Ghost is real.
The development of this drone came out of a Pentagon section that has the codename “Big Safari,” working under the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group. Which only helps to make the whole thing even more mysterious. That group reportedly began developing the drone on Feb. 24, as Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border.
It’s a pretty good bet that Ukraine is happy with the performance of this drone in the field, otherwise the United States wouldn’t be so eager to send more. From that, the speculation is that it carries a bigger punch than a Switchblade 300, making it more capable against vehicles, radar stations, etc. Maybe we’ll get images and detailed specifications soon. In the meantime, spookiness has a quality all its own.
Punisher [Ukraine, Bomber, 50km]
Like the Russian Lastochka-M, Ukraine’s Punisher drone is designed to deliver the functionality of a kamikaze and the reusability of a reconnaissance drone. Unlike the Lastochka-M, there seems to be more than a handful of Punishers, and maker UA Dynamics is crowdfunding to make more by offering to put messages on the side of bombs.
Punisher drone carrying a 3kg bomb.
This one-bomb weapon platform falls in between the size of the “mini” reconnaissance drones and something like a Switchblade with a wingspan of 2.25m. It has a reported payload of 3kg, which places some limits on what it can carry in terms of weapons. UA Dynamics doesn’t seem to advise making armored vehicles a primary target.
The Punisher is made from what are reportedly “radar transparent” materials and uses a quiet electric motor rather than a gas engine. That combination helps it stay unnoticed, even though it’s flight ceiling is a very low 400m. With a moderate (73kph) cruise and that low altitude, something is working for the Punisher, because UA Dynamics reports that exactly zero of its drones have been shot down in combat.
The camera system on the Punisher is also reportedly good enough for the drone to also serve as a reconnaissance platform even when not carrying it’s own armament. As videos from the Ukrainian military show, it has both a high resolution and a zoom camera, allowing it to both find targets and conduct after-action examinations.
ScanEagle [United States, Reconnaissance, 100km]
At first glance, the ScanEagle might as well be the progenitor of all the medium-sized reconnaissance drones in this guide. Dating from 2002, the 3.1m wingspan, 90kph cruising speed, and a 2-stroke 1-cylinder engine, gives this drone a set of general specs might be mistaken for any other craft on the list. But that’s only at first glance. Because the ScanEagle really shouldn’t be on this part of the list at all. That’s because the ScanEagle, while having a primary wing that shows an ordinary trapezoidal design, has only one of them. Rather than control surfaces at the tail, it gets by with tip rudders at each end of its slender wing. Which makes its control scheme more like a delta wing than a paired wing craft. Still, I had to drop it somewhere.
ScanEagle mounted on the launcher
Like most other drones this size, the ScanEagle is actually capable of flying for many hours and could theoretically travel better than 1500km in a straight line. The 100km is the limit of its highly encoded communications gear.
The single wing is not the only thing that makes the ScanEagle fairly unique. Rather than being hand or slingshot launched, the drone uses a rather hefty pneumatic rail system that looks not unlike a giant crossbow. It’s not just the start of the flight that is interesting. The ending is even more unique. Rather than making a traditional landing at all, the ScanEagle flies into an elevated line using a set of small hooks that extend from the lower surface of the wing. The whole system is known as a “sky hook.”
But wait. It’s gets better. Boeing Insitu, which makes the drone, came up with a new launch and landing system in 2015. That involves the FLARES system (Flying Launch and Recovery) which is actually an entirely different drone, this one a rotor-design, whose job it is to take the ScanEagle aloft and then snatch it back down again.
That may seem like enough innovation for one drone, but over the last two decades, most of the upgrades to the ScanEagle have come in the form of changes to the drone’s collection of sensing instruments. Those now include the usual selection of high resolution visible light, IR, and thermal cameras, zoom cameras, laser range finders, and—because this drone has to have something unique at every turn—a ViDAR system, which is a system that hybridizes optical light and radar.
The ScanEagle has been used literally pole to pole by the military, by industry, and by research institutes (in proof of the pole-to-pole thing, it has both counted whales in the Antarctic, and measured glacial retreat in the Arctic). There is one other drone which is remarkably similar, the Yasir drone from Iran. That’s because Iran managed to capture a ScanEagle in 2012 (possibly from the Canadian Navy) and got busy cloning it. However, no Yasir drones have turned up in Ukraine. So far.
The U.S. reported it was sending 15 ScanEagles to Ukraine in August, but it’s unclear if any have arrived. None have been reported shot down or lost.
Spectator-M1 [Ukraine, Reconnaissance, 100km]
The Spectator was Ukraine’s first home-grown military drone when it went into service in 2015. Originally produced in cooperation between Kyiv Polytechnic Institute and defense industry companies, it’s now made by VAT S.P.Korolev Meridian JSC in Kyiv. The M1 version was first produced in 2019 as a third generation version of the Spectator with upgrades to almost every system.
Despite what looks like a protruding engine, the Spectator-M1 is electric
The 3m wingspan places the Spectator-M1 right in the middle of the “medium-sized reconnaissance drone” category. However, unlike many of the drones in this size category, it’s gone for an electric motor, optimizing silence over extended flight time. Even so, the M1 can stay aloft for over 3 hours, which is a lengthy period for an electric drone of this size. This is assisted by the drone’s long, thin wings, which help make it an efficient glider.
The M1 was designed with some of the conveniences of a consumer drone in mind—easily swapped batteries for rapid redeployment, and fast assembly from its custom storage case. The result is a drone that’s capable of being set up in under 15 minutes, and which can conduct five or more flights in a day.
While this is a dedicated reconnaissance drone, it provides precise coordinates for located targets, is reportedly very easy to fly, and includes a high degree of automation. The entire flight, including take off and landing, can be conducted under automation. Or it can be landed by hand. Or it can deploy a parachute to land in areas where there’s not enough room to make a rolling stop.
Ukraine has lost at least three Spectator-M1s so far, with two being shot down and one apparently captured intact.
Switchblade 300 [United States, kamikaze, 10km]
The AeroVironment Switchblade 300 was originally created at the request of the U.S. Army especially for use in Afghanistan. First deployed in 2011, it became an effective weapon for remotely taking out an individual gunman or light vehicle at a distance of several kilometers. For a pinned down squad or a scouting team, the Switchblade 300 offered the ability to hit assailants outside normal rifle range, or locate an enemy in hiding. With the ability to “sprint” at speeds of 160kph when closing on a target, it could also chase down a pickup bouncing down a dusty road and have a good chance of taking out the driver.
Switchblade 300 being launched. The box contains a ‘six pack’
The Switchblade 300 weighs in around 2kg, is simply launched from a short tube launcher, provides a clear (though not reconnaissance quality) view of potential targets, and has the ability to follow a target on its own once locked in. It’s a deadly combination when going after individual high-value targets on foot or in light cover.
However, the utility of the Switchblade 300 in Ukraine has been problematic. The Switchblade’s warhead is a highly directional fragmentation charge, triggered by a sensor which goes off some distance above the target. U.S. forces nicknamed it the “flying shotgun.” Because of this weapon design, the Switchblade 300 is not effective at taking out large groups, even when they are exposed, and it’s unable to penetrate any level of actual armor.
Critics of the 300 have called it ineffective, and there are reports that platoons have been unwilling to carry along a weapon that provides a one-time, one-target potential kill. The Switchblade 300 also can’t serve effectively as a reconnaissance tool, even during it’s single flight. Some platoons have made it clear they would rather carry something like a modified consumer drone that can be used in multiple roles
However, the Ukrainian military has published several videos that show the Switchblade 300 in effective action—taking down a machine gun nest, striking soldiers servicing artillery, or hitting a group of soldiers riding on top of a tank. The claims that the Switchblade has been completely ineffective in Ukraine are underselling this tool.
Overall, the Switchblade 300 is far from the game changer that many hoped it would be when it was first sent to Ukraine. It’s not a drone that was developed to deal with a large scale military action where most vehicles are armored. It’s not capable of reaching out to the enemy when the distance of action is defined more by artillery than rifles. However, it has performed well in situations that are within its range.
Switchblade 600 [United States, Kamikaze, 40-90km]
At first glance, the Switchblade 600 seems like a scaled up version of AeroVironment’s smaller Switchblade 300. But the 600 is more than just bigger. It’s got a longer range, a more powerful warhead, and a whole different role on the battlefield. Where the 300 was designed to go against individuals or light vehicles, the 600 is a hunter-killer for seeking out armor.
Animation of Switchblade 600 in action from maker Aerovironment.
Weighing it at 22kg, the Switchblade 600 is still easily “man portable,” but it’s a lot more of a burden to pack about than its ten-times lighter sibling. However, that 22kg is almost exactly the weight of another system that’s really more of a competitor to the 600 than the “flying shotgun” 300 — the Javelin anti-tank missile.
In fact, the best way to think about a Switchblade 600 may be as a MANPATS that’s designed to hit enemy vehicles a considerable distance away, rather than those which are line of sight. Once aloft, a Switchblade 600 can be guided to a tank or other target up to 40km away. It can also be programmed to take out a system on its own, using its internal pattern-matching image evaluation to find and lock in on an enemy at a distance of up to 90km.
This makes the Switchblade 600 a system that can easily outrange artillery and take out not just tanks, but artillery, MLRS, and even some command structures. Taking down those kinds of high value targets at a range of 40-90km should make the Switchblade 600 very valuable in Ukraine … but so far, it hasn’t been.
The reason for that is simple enough: it’s not there.
The initial batch of ten Switchblade 600s for Ukraine was announced shortly after the war began in the U.S.’s second batch of defense provisions. But in May, and then again in August, came announcements that the delivery of the larger Switchblade had been delayed. On August 22, the Pentagon reported that they expected to have the first ten Switchblade 600s in Ukraine by the end of September. On October 26, Ukraine announced they were still waiting.
The Switchblade 300 may have been just the right drone for Afghanistan. The Switchblade 600 looks to be tailor-made for Ukraine. If only it was in Ukraine.
UJ-32 LASTIVKA [Ukraine, Kamikaze, 40km]
There are smart kamikaze drones that pack every bit of modern technological kit, and then there are extra clever kamikaze drones that go just one step better. This is one of those.
Does the business end of the UJ-32 Lastivka look familiar?
What makes the Lastivka so interesting? Take a look at the nose of the drone in the image. Does it look at all familiar? You may have seen it before, but don’t recognize it in this place, because that’s really the nosecone of a Soviet-era RPG-7 rocket-propelled grenade. That’s right. The Lastivka comes as an empty tube, just insert warhead and go.
Where the Switchblade 300 is available as a six-pack, the Lastivka is exclusively sold in packs of 10. Each individual drone is relatively small, in between the sizes of the two Switchblades, but the launching system and flight control are all integrated, so it’s never going to be a human-portable system. However, if you can bring along a pickup or something similar to haul it, this system offers a pretty good punch.
The Lastivka launches automatically from the launching system, climbs to altitude, and can be directed to a target either by automatically hitting a position or being steered by camera. That RPG-7 warhead was, and is, theoretically designed for armor, and it’s still used that way, but odds are better taking on a small building or a light vehicle. New RPG-7s are made in Ukraine, as well as several other countries (including Russia, so there were probably several in those captured ammo dumps in Kharkiv). No one is going to run out of warheads for this drone.
Either way, everything about this system was designed to be inexpensive, simple, and fast to set up and operate. It takes an RPG-7 and turns it from a handheld line-of-sight weapon into smart artillery that can accurately tag a target 40km away. The biggest problem here seems to be that there aren’t many of these systems in use.
If the UKRJET UJ-22 looks like a model airplane, it also seems to operate like one. Perhaps unique among all the drones listed, it doesn’t appear to have any sort of automatic guidance. It won’t fly point to point by coordinate, or even autopilot itself along without help. Instead, pilots take control of a control stick on the ground station and steer it in a way that will be instantly familiar to those who had done their hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator.
The most model-planey of drones
Those flying the UJ-22 with that traditional HOTAS (Hands-on-throttle and stick) arrangement can cruise at a fairly brisk 120kph, sprint at 160kph, and take the medium-sized, runway-launched drone up to altitudes up to 6,000m.
The payload capacity of the UJ-22 is up to 20kg, allowing it to carry a variety of sensors, including an optional radar system. It uses a two-stroke gasoline engine, is capable of staying airborne up to 14 hours, and has an out-and-back range of about 400km when carrying a moderate payload.
Russia has reported shooting down at least two UJ-22s so far, however it appears that the same photo of wreckage was used in both instances, so Russia has probably bagged only a single example.