In a muddy field on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital, soldiers hunch over hand-held controls and talk in hushed voices about which way to direct the drone that hums overhead.
It takes a certain skill to navigate the drone, said Oleksandr, the head of the Dronarium training centre – and it does not come from traditional military training.
“For someone who plays PlayStations, it’s easier,” Oleksandr, who cannot give his full name for security reasons, said.
Between 30 and 35 soldiers are enrolled on each five-day course, having been sent by their military units.
Fifteen types of drones are available, and the soldiers fly the lightweight devices – which weigh no more than 250 grams – between four and seven kilometres as they roleplay battle scenarios.
Once sent out into the field, the soldiers are split into pairs and given ‘intelligence’ on military objects found to be in a ‘nearby location’.
Using a map, they try to fly the drone to the designated point, take as many photos as they can and bring it back without being spotted.
Once they have sent the photos to their commander, their mission is complete.
The training centre was established by Oleksandr (45) in Lviv in April. A second branch later opened in Kyiv.
Before the war, Oleksandr had an international business selling pet supplies online.
He learned to fly a drone eight years ago, but never did he think he would be one day help his country fight a Russian invasion.
Yet, the prominence of unmanned aircraft on the front line has dominated this war, with Russia and Ukraine using professional military drones as their “eyes” in the sky. So, it is no wonder that the armed forces recruit people like Oleksandr.
Russia operates a large fleet of Orlan-10 winged observation devices, whereas Ukraine tends to use its own fixed-wing observation drones.
Kyiv has also used kamikaze drones, such as the American-made Switchblade and the Polish-supplied Warmate. Ukraine also uses the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, which played a role in destroying Russian armoured columns at the start of the war.
But Oleksandr said many of the soldiers who come have their own commercial drones they fly on the front line.
“During the war we realised drones were essential,” he said. “But lots of soldiers were crashing them. They had their own drones but didn’t know how to use them.”
The centre has trained more than 700 soldiers as drone pilots and hopes to carry on training “until the war stops”.
Max Gherasimov (45), one of the lead instructors, acknowledges the soldiers must take in a lot of information in a very short time. “We deliberately do not give too much information to the soldiers when they do this task, in order to replicate conditions on the front line,” he said.
“My students are so dedicated. They come here for training, then they return to the front line and are better for it.”
He added that he sometimes worried his men were “too serious”. His view that the soldiers were determined was not an understatement – they did not laugh at all, their faces etched with concentration as they hung on their instructors’ every word. “This is a question about their lives, so of course they are serious,” Mr Gherasimov added. (© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2022)
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