Eastern Ukraine (CNN) As we entered deep into the forest, the silence between the towering pines and the clear blue sky was shattered every few seconds by the sound of distant explosions from the front line battles for eastern Ukraine.
Guiding us on foot through the forest, the Ukrainian soldiers eventually brought us to a clearing where they showed us the wreckage of an armed drone that they said they had shot down with their AK-47 automatic weapons over the weekend. -end.
The drone was a Mugin-5, a commercial unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) made by a Chinese manufacturer based in the port city of Xiamen on China’s east coast.
Some tech bloggers say the machines are known as “Alibaba drones” because they have been available for sale for up to $15,000 on Chinese market websites including Alibaba and Taobao.
Mugin Limited confirmed to CNN that it was their cell, calling the incident “deeply unfortunate”.
It is the last example of a modernized and armed civilian drone since the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a sign of the rapid evolution of the modes of warfare.
“Along the front lines, pretty much all the time, we do aerial reconnaissance,” said Maksim, a 35-year-old Home Defense fighter who only wanted to be called by his first name.
Overnight Friday-Saturday, Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) told CNN that their agents based in Russian-held territory alerted them that a drone had been launched from there, heading towards a target Ukrainian.
The SBU then sounded the alarm bell to military units based in eastern Ukraine, near the city of Sloviansk.
At around 2 a.m. on Saturday morning, fighters from the 111th Brigade of the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine heard the drone overhead and even saw a flashing light on the plane.
“From the sound, from the light signal, the troops fired a lot at it and knocked the UAV down,” Maksim said.
Maksim said the drone was flying very low – close enough to take it down with handguns.
Now lying on the forest floor, a bullet hole was visible on the nose of the machine, which had broken apart and suffered extensive damage.
Nearby, the soldiers also showed us a small crater in the earth that was created by the drone’s payload – an approximately 44-pound (20-kilogram) bomb, which was then safely detonated by the fighters.
In a video shared with CNN, the Ukrainian fighters plugged in a US-made demolition charge, then sprinted through the forest to their truck, before speeding off again.
At a distance of approximately 1,640 feet (500 meters), they then stopped their vehicle and turned to film the powerful impact of the explosion – a reminder of the potential damage it could have caused had it reached its target on Ukrainian soil.
The armed commercial drone was not equipped with a camera, which means it could not have been used for surveillance, and makes it essentially similar to a “dumb bomb”, according to Chris Lincoln-Jones, a retired British Army officer and drone specialist. war.
“This particular drone we reviewed would be much more effective if it contained a decent camera,” Lincoln-Jones said.
He added that the machine adds more evidence to the theory that Russia is not the military superpower the world might have expected.
“It seems like a very crude, unsophisticated and not very technologically advanced way of conducting operations,” he said, adding that the price of the machines is very cheap in military terms.
“The Ukrainians have to do everything they can,” he added, so he would expect them to use “a lot more makeshift weapons.”
In January, officials in the Russian region of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine claimed in a Telegram article that they had shot down a Mugin-5 launched by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials have not commented on this particular incident, but experts said there is evidence that both sides in the conflict used the technology.
“Both Russia and Ukraine have used commercially available Chinese platforms like this during the conflict, including in armed roles,” said weapons intelligence specialist NR Jenzen-Jones. and munitions and director of Armament Research Services consultancy.
“In this case, the Mugin-5 Pro was probably being used in a ‘bomber’ role, not as a one-way attack drone (OWA, also called ‘sacrificial’),” Jenzen-Jones said.
The ammunition loaded on the drone was likely a “high explosive fragmentation” design, which was “simple and not very aerodynamic”, he said.
Jenzen-Jones added that the bomb’s release mechanism appeared to be made with 3D-printed components which “suggests the drone was rapidly modernized”, he added.
“We are not happy”
As weapons evolve in real time across Ukraine’s battlefields, the civilian companies behind the technology that’s weaponized to kill are now scrambling to find ways to keep their products out of the supply chain. military supply.
“We do not condone the use. We are doing our best to stop it,” a Mugin Limited spokesperson told CNN.
In a previous statement posted on its website on March 2, Mugin Limited said they “condemn” the use of their products during the war and that they had stopped selling products to Russia or Ukraine. at the start of the war.
CNN also contacted half a dozen other companies whose electronics were visible in the downed drone.
This includes MKS servos, a Taiwanese electronics manufacturer.
“Some drone manufacturers may adopt MKS servos on their end products for military use, we are not happy with that, and it goes against our company’s mission and vision,” a carrier said. company word in an email to CNN.
The MKS website disclaimer also states that their products are “prohibited” for any illegal or military use.
A sensor on the drone’s modernized circuit board was made by Novatel, part of the Canada-based Hexagon Group, which supplies industries such as “agriculture, construction and automotive”.
“For all export-controlled products, we have extensive screening processes in place to ensure they are supplied in compliance with applicable export laws,” a Hexagon spokesperson told CNN per E-mail.
“In April 2022, we also took the decision to freeze all business activities in Russia.”
Despite signs that the use of UAV technology in this conflict is escalating, Ukrainian fighter Maksim denies it has turned into drone warfare.
“It’s not a technology war,” he said. “War is primarily a war of people.”