The Russia-Ukraine war has proved to be a breeding ground for electronic warfare. Russia claims to have developed a ‘magic radio’ for FPV (First Person View) drones that will make them highly resistant to jamming in the latest technological development for drones.
The innovation is another testament to how off-the-shelf consumer technology is used in a military environment. Both Russia and Ukraine are augmenting their FPVs manufacturing capabilities.
Sudoplatov, a Russian group, asserts that they manufacture a thousand of them daily. Dominating the electronic spectrum to jam the adversary’s drones and making drones foolproof against disruption has, thus, become crucial on the battlefield. A dominance in electronic warfare will allow one to subvert the enemy while remaining unharmed.
The data emerging from the battlefield indicates the growing role of drone strikes against Russian targets along the 600-mile front. On many days in November, between 50 percent and 70 percent of all damaged or destroyed Russian equipment was attributed to FPV drones, according to figures published by analyst Andrew Perpetua on X.
On November 13, the FPV proportion of successful strikes was even higher, at around 84 percent.
This makes constant innovation in the field imperative. The news of the ‘magic radio,’ a small piece of equipment made from off-the-shelf components, was shared on a Russian telegram channel and was later dissected by a physicist with the handle DanierR on X.
The FPVs, or in other words, remotely piloted drones, have become the representative weapons of the war that has been raging on for nearly two years now. Both sides have brought out technologies like fielded jammers and drone guns firing a beam of radio waves to bring down the drones.
FPV drones are operated manually and do not rely on GPS satellite navigation, which reduces their vulnerability to electronic warfare tactics. Nevertheless, in the event of an enemy jamming any radio frequency the drone utilizes, video transmission signals and piloting commands will be interrupted.
The Russia-Ukraine war has proved to be a breeding ground for electronic warfare. Russia claims to have developed a ‘magic radio’ for FPV drones that will make them highly resistant to jamming pic.twitter.com/gJtnYrubcj
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The Kamikaze drones have proven to be highly potent and resilient on the battlefield. They are cost-effective as well. Jamming them is the only way to make them useless, but the device claims to negate the jamming attempts.
The all-Russian creation, hailed by the Russian Telegram channels, is called the Hermes Anti-interference Communication Kit and is made from imported Chinese parts.
DanierR notes: “The Russians removed the labels from the most important piece, but they need not have bothered.” He identifies one component as having an RAK3172(H) wireless module made by the Chinese company RAKwireless. It is “an easy-to-use, small-size, low-power solution for long-range wireless data applications,” available in different radio frequency bands online for $5.99.
The device is meant for long-range communication (LoRa). LoRa is a radio communication technology developed by Semtech, a renowned electronics company, in 2014. It serves as a device specifically designed for low-power wide area networks. Over time, LoRa has emerged as a fundamental component for Internet of Things (IoT) applications, and its hardware is extensively manufactured on a large scale. This inherent characteristic makes it highly appealing to FPV builders, primarily due to its adaptability and versatility.
“The LoRa radios have always been able to operate on different frequencies, and this ability has been used throughout the war,” says DanielR.
LoRa technology has low power consumption and enables communication within a range of up to three miles in urban environments and even more than five miles in open areas. To enhance the coverage, numerous drone operators have adopted a repeater, which is transported by another drone, thereby extending the communication range.
DanielR observes that the appearance of Hermes’ “magic antenna with filter” resembles a half-wave dipole antenna. Considering that the dimensions of the antenna align with the radio waves it receives, he approximates its frequency of operation to be around 930 MHz.
The antenna is equipped with a balun (abbreviated form of “balancing unit”) and a surface acoustic wave filter, both of which are readily available components to enhance its performance. DanielR mentions that these components are inexpensive, with the balun costing approximately $0.50 and the surface acoustic wave filter costing around $0.40.
The standard radio control can be enhanced with a transmitter that conveniently plugs into its back. The case of this transmitter is crafted using traditional 3D printing techniques. Although multiple methods exist to create such a device, it probably incorporates an STM32 microcontroller, opines DanierR.
STM32 microcontroller is a standard component in electronic devices made by a Switzerland-based company. The one drawback of the Magic Radio, the physicist remarks, is that including a remarkably luminous LED proves advantageous for Ukrainian snipers.
The Hermes group has set up a pick-and-place Chinese-made machine, Neoden 10, that costs US$30,000. Shared on the Telegram channel, this indicates that hundreds of boards are already being made per month.
These boards exhibit a high level of simplicity. The components utilized are readily accessible, inexpensive, and commonly found. Upon inspection, an auto-router with standard configurations was employed to create the traces. The firmware being used by Russians is proprietary, yet it is uncomplicated.
The Russians had made their FPVs more potent by equipping them with heat-detecting night vision to carry out strikes in darkness. This gave them an upper hand against the Ukrainians.
The FPV figures show that Russian drones have also inflicted heavy losses on the Ukrainian side. Armored personnel carriers, an American-made M777 howitzer, and a radio relay system were among the systems damaged or destroyed by Russian UAVs in November.
Dangers Of Off-The-Shelf FPV Technology
FPV drones are equipped with a camera that allows for video transmission. They excel in speed, accuracy, and control methods compared to other drones. These drones use a controller and goggles, providing the operator with a first-person view (FPV).
Although FPV drones are commonly used for recreational purposes, videography, and live-streaming events, they can also carry payloads and maneuver swiftly. Some models can reach speeds exceeding 100 km/h.
In the Russian-Ukrainian war, FPV drones are utilized as high-speed quadcopters for surveillance, observation, ammunition delivery, and even as kamikazes by attaching combat payloads. In the hands of skilled operators, these drones become exact weapons.
The Ukrainian forces have actively incorporated FPV drones into various divisions since the initial phase of the full-scale invasion. These divisions include the Armed Forces, Security Service of Ukraine, Border Guards, National Guard, and Defense Intelligence operatives.
Regularly, they release footage captured by these drones. For example, the 72nd separate mechanized brigade, known as the Black Zaporozhians, recently utilized these drones to successfully destroy a heavy flamethrower system called Solntsepyok, estimated to be worth US$15 million.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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