Russia’s PMC Wagner Announces A ‘Hackathon’; Aims To Promote New Ideas To Boost Defense Capability

Russia’s pursuit to be self-sufficient in drone technology, particularly ones that can be independent of satellite navigation and human control to make them jam-proof, will soon be met through a hackathon announced by the Private Mercenary Company (PMC) Wagner.

Systems that can autonomously navigate drones between waypoints on a map by referencing ground and geographical structures on video with pre-loaded satellite images appear to be the defining feature participants are expected to develop.

The war in Ukraine not only saw drones in conventional warfare for the first time but UAVs that are smaller, simpler, non-armed, dual-use ones for simple battlefield tasks were found to be more beneficial than the large ones developed by the US in the last two decades.

Why The Hackathon?

The loss of Turkish TB-2 Bayraktar drones to Russian air defense and electronic warfare (EW); the reluctance of US defense officials and defense companies to send their drones to Ukraine for the same reason; the use of simple drones modified to carry and drop grenades on infantry and; the use of commercially available Chinese DJI drones by both Russia and Ukraine for reconnaissance, artillery fire correction and their loss to anti-drone jammer guns that cut the satellite navigation and radio control signals are driving Wagner’s efforts.

The hackathon, to be held from December 20 to December 23, came under what appeared to be critical for absorbing the technology copyrights of the participant’s products.

It was inferred that Wagner would likely own the intellectual property the participants would develop. The webpage on PMC Wagner’s website that announced the hackathon and other related information was also not available.

Wagner Drone Hackathon

The hackathon will be held from December 20 to December 23 at Wagner’s newly inaugurated headquarters in St. Petersburg. The PMC Wagner Centre, as it is being referred to, has been announced to be a self-funded private militia to promote “new ideas to improve Russia’s defense capability.”

While recruiting candidates for combat roles is just one part, the company will also induct engineers, scientists, designers, inventors, IT specialists, and cyber experts, providing space for start-ups and facilities for testing new weapons and technologies.

Teams of 2 to 5 persons are promised cash prizes of Rubles 1,000,000, 300,000, and 200,000 for the first, second, and third places, respectively.

Satellite Independent, Image Referencing UAVs

According to the information posted on Telegram channels attributed to the PMC Wagner Centre, “Participants will have to demonstrate UAV positioning systems through video recognition, search for waypoints by landmarks in the absence of satellite navigation systems and external control at the final pitch session.”

The third and final day will test the competing drones by making them fly as a part of a swarm, including four DJI Mavic drones with disabled GPS and control panels.

However, one of the comments notes that the whole event begins with the signing of an agreement on the transfer of intellectual property. “It is wrong to mix patriotism and intellectual property, and Wagner can always hire engineers by posting job openings. Moreover, just three to five days to develop such UAV positioning systems is too small,” said one comment.

Wagner Drone Hackathon

Commentators on Russian social media say the hackathon hopes to develop three components of a satellite-independent drone navigation system. One is an image referencing system to identify landmarks captured on the drone’s camera. The other is to identify landmarks on “satellite images” that can be assumed to be pre-loaded in the drone’s memory.

The third is supposed to determine the coordinates of the landmarks at each point of the image from the video based on the position of the camera lens and the drone itself – the “parameters of the lens, the values of the height, azimuth, and pitch, yaw and roll of the drone and the gimbal.”

The three systems are then supposed to be integrated by working in tandem by flying between the landmarks/waypoints by matching the images on the camera, satellite pictures geometric positions of the camera and the drone.

Participants would also have to get “root access to the drone, reverse engineer the firmware components and dynamic libraries, load the program executable file into the system, modifying shell scripts so that this program always runs in the background and takes over control in case of loss of communication.”

Lastly, the control of the drone should be able to be transferred to a separate Android application.

Drones operating without satellite navigation from American Global Positioning System (GPS), Russian GLONASS, China’s Beidou, and Europe’s Galileo can be immune to various counter-drone systems.

These can confuse UAVs by snapping the signal from the satellite, causing them to lose direction. Otherwise, the drone jammers target the radio link that connects the ground controller to the drone, causing it to fall out of the sky.