Oleksandr Chendekov, known in Ukraine as “the father of drones,” tells NV about the convergence of Russian raw materials and Chinese production in equipping the Russian military with modern UAVs, and how Ukraine could counter it.
Coincidentally, our interview with Chendekov, recorded in a cafe in Kiev, was accompanied by an attack by Russian-Iranian Shahed drones.
Chendekov co-founded the AI startup FoxFour.ai, after previously working for the UKrspecsystems And Ukrjet drone manufacturers, and was involved in the creation of the most famous Ukrainian UAV, the Bober (Beaver). In the past, these drones have repeatedly struck deep into Russian territory and hit buildings in central Moscow.
NV: What about the production of FPV (first-person view) drones? How normal is it for them to be produced by small companies? What are the pros and cons of FPV drone production in Ukraine?
Chendekov: I see it as a blessing, because small business production has become an answer to a lethargic bureaucratic machine and centralized procurement from the Ministry of Defense.
NV: So this kind of decentralization is a good thing?
Chendekov: Yes, I tend to believe that decentralization is a good thing. It’s also about diversification and reducing security risks. It is impossible to storm a huge factory and shut everything down at once.
There are also disadvantages. It is more expensive and more difficult to control quality. But this is all decided at the customer level. There are many [funding] programs, including Victory drones [a volunteer project dedicated to UAVs]. That’s why I think one of the big challenges this industry faces isn’t even increasing production for this [one] million [of UAVs produced as an annual goal] that everyone is talking about, but the fact that in six months they are going to dramatically lose their efficiency. It will be a challenge. Because now all these FPV drones are 100% made from Chinese components.
NV: Earlier you said that FPV drones are not a replacement for conventional weapons.
Chendekov: Of course. Artillery, for example, will not disappear from the battlefield. We would really like to see the MLRS [multiple launch rocket systems] starting to change into something more like HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) and [HIMARS-like] MLRS, so that our missile armament becomes more accurate and efficient. That is, to increase our capacity, not by firing more ammunition, but by increasing its precision.
NV: To what extent can Ukraine supply itself with FPV drones?
Chendekov: Interesting question. If we mean assembly from Chinese components, it is absolutely possible. Give China money and they will produce as much as we want, no problem. Another thing is that Russia will buy more, and here is something that really worries me: any weapon, even if there are elements of innovation, some new approaches, if it is based on Chinese components, Russia copies it very quickly. It buys [components] in the same place, and it has more money.
NV: There are varying prices for FPV drones, around $500-700. How profitable are they? to assemble?
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Chendekov: Without profit, any industry stagnates without investments, without resources going into production, without improvements and with loss of personnel. The state, represented by the cabinet, has promised arms manufacturers a profit margin of 25% on the basic cost [to include in the price a profit of up to 25% from the basic cost price of products, including materials, components, labor costs, without administrative costs]. Another problem is that when purchases are made with volunteer money, I wouldn’t mention it here. A total of 25% profit on the basic cost price, which does not mean that there is a net profit margin of 25%. I think the real margin is about 15%. It depends on the production efficiency. Maybe someone can afford 20%. It is important to understand that when we buy Ukrainian-made weapons, this profit is capitalized in the form of the development of our military industry.
NV: As an engineer, can you evaluate the drone samples used by Russia?
Chendekov: I would like to mention the Russian Lancet drones. They have an autonomous guidance system. Roughly speaking, it sees the target, catches it and then directs itself towards it. If we develop such a drone, it will significantly improve our efficiency – if it works properly. Because problems arise [with FPV drones] when approaching a target. It could be a squad-level electronic warfare system, or some obstacles to the radio signal: terrain, trees and buildings. Therefore, the presence of the autonomous guidance function is very important, and many groups are currently working on it, both ours and theirs of course.
NV: But the Russians have been using those Lancet UAVs less lately.
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Chendekov: Western microchips are needed to assemble such drones. Russia does not have domestic chips capable of this. There are American, Chinese and Taiwanese chips that can do this, as well as Korean ones. So the question is this: as China [through which Russia has access to Western components] were to join the sanctions, we could say that this would be a certain guarantee against the development of this new capacity by Moscow.
As for anti-drone technology, I don’t think such things will develop immediately. They will not work properly initially, followed by the development of respective countermeasures. Everyone has seen drones being shot down with small arms. Therefore, we will see systems that can do this automatically. They already exist, but are expensive and were created to protect against anti-tank missiles.
NV: In another six months, do you think the development of electronic warfare (EW) will make drones less effective?
Chendekov: This is my prediction, yes.
NV: What will this EW arms race look like?
Chendekov: I think that electronic warfare systems will be installed on armored vehicles, in dugouts, at firing positions. The infantry will not have such systems because it is too expensive to equip the entire force with them. But we are gradually, step by step, moving towards some of the fantastic robot war movies, where people sit in dugouts or in bunkers and control military robots remotely. If we talk about technological development, the level of autonomy of robots will increase and they will no longer need full human control from start to finish.
NV: What about drone swarms?
Chendekov: Swarm technology has different levels. The first is when many drones are used simultaneously, in a coordinated manner, each with individual controls. This is level zero, and communication problems already arise at this level because radio frequencies are not sufficient to support direct control of so many UAVs in one place.
The second level is when the drones are connected together and controlled as one. But the task of preparing or launching them simultaneously remains a challenge. The flight time of one drone can be five or ten minutes. That is, they must all be launched as a swarm within a maximum of one minute. That is, this part must be developed, that is, the ground launch. She [drones in a swarm] are connected to each other. If they lose this connection, they become helpless and could be hit by electronic warfare. The swarm concept is very nice and sounds promising, but it is a very difficult technical task.
NV: What is the situation with the development of EW systems in Ukraine?
Chendekov: We have already developed quite a powerful electronic warfare system against Shahed UAVs. Now when these drones fly, they cannot strike accurately because they are jammed in advance as they approach their targets. They don’t have satellite [GPS navigation] and have quite inaccurate inertial navigation systems.
NV: How effective and expensive are Shahed UAVs to produce? Can Russia produce them in large numbers?
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Chendekov: It is important not to underestimate Russia’s capabilities, as the country simply has money [than us]. Money can do many different things, especially when it is in the hands of a dictator with absolute power. They have no questions about agreements with suppliers, competition or prices. Russian manufacturers do what they are told. There were reports about the Shahed production facility in Tatarstan: depending on the available factory space, it is possible to produce about 300 drones per month. I think the bottleneck will primarily be engine production, because China most likely produces the engines for that. And the second is electronics. An interference-resistant GPS antenna is one of the key elements in Shahed UAVs, which use US-made microcircuitry. They have to buy them somewhere. I don’t know who should supply them and if there are any problems with them. I think this could be a limiting factor.
NV: What about the costs of these drones?
Chendekov: I estimate the cost of a Shahed UAV to be around $80,000, at break-even. Since they are exported from Iran, there will be a profit margin as well as all kinds of duties, taxes, etc. My estimate is about $150,000 [the cost of one Iranian Shahed UAV for Russians].
NV: Does Ukraine have an advantage over Russia in drones?
Chendekov: Our advantage is that we are not isolated from the world and can attract the best Western technologies and components. That is, no one is preventing us from taking a high-speed microchip and using it. We can submit and receive documents for export control. We have not imposed any sanctions.
The motivational factor is also an advantage. Everyone involved in drones in Ukraine experiences an emotional upsurge: they feel like they are doing something important. They do not allow themselves to do anything wrong, because they understand that people’s lives depend on it. Does Russia have this factor? I don’t know, because I’m not an expert in this field.
NV: How many companies do we have that produce large drones?
Chendekov: By my estimate, about ten companies produce large drones. Perhaps there are another dozen volunteer foundations or some simple volunteer groups that are not registered in any way and are also developing something. They have the opportunity to develop something, pass tests and receive assignments.
NV: Which drones do we need? most of it now?
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Chendekov: I would focus on currently unmet needs. For example, everyone dreams of hitting Russian strategic airfields. While the enemy has strategic Tu-95 bombers launching Kh-101 and Kh-55 missiles, we can expect massive missile attacks. The limiting factor in missile attacks is the number of aircraft carriers, that is, the Tu-95 aircraft. That’s why we need a drone that can travel more than 2,000 km [and hit the bombers].
It is difficult to achieve a range of 2,000 km. Only a few types of cruise missiles worldwide can achieve this, and only a handful of countries have managed to develop such a weapon.
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Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine