Work never stops in this Skyeton production facility. The private armaments manufacturer's employees work throughout the night, cutting components, assembling them, checking software. The end product is the Raybird-3 drone system, military designation ACS-3. The unmanned mini-aircraft has a wingspan of just under three meters and weighs less than half a hundredweight. It can fly up to 120 kilometers, meaning it can also be deployed for reconnaissance flights over enemy territory.
Boom in the Ukrainian drone industry
The Raybird-3 has been in use with the Ukrainian armed forces since 2018. However, since February 2022, Skyeton has significantly increased production. "Things that used to take us a year before 2022 we can now get done in a few weeks," says Andrii Fialkovskyi, CEO of Skyeton.
Until 2014, the firm manufactured training aircraft. Now, it produces three aircraft, a catapult start system, two ground stations, an antenna unit and a set of spare parts per week. The company's biggest challenge is maintaining security against Russian attacks, prompting Skyeton to distribute its production across various different locations.
Skyeton is not the only company to have expanded drone production in the last couple of years. The industry in Ukraine is experiencing a veritable boom. Since the start of Russia's large-scale attack in February 2022, demand from the Ukrainian military has surged, and combat drones have become a crucial factor in battles with Russian invaders. Depending on the model, the unmanned aerial vehicles can be deployed both for reconnaissance and to fire on enemy targets.
Since then, many smaller and larger companies in Ukraine have started developing their own systems. One of these firms is Ukrspecsystems, which manufactures the remote-controlled SHARK reconnaissance drone, with a range of around 80 kilometers. According to the manufacturer, only six months elapsed between the start of development and initial tests. The drone was presented to the public in October 2022. Other Ukrainian developers report similar timelines.
Ukraine is building reconnaissance and combat drones
Of the reconnaissance drones manufactured in Ukraine, the models SHARK, Leleka-100 (Stork), Furia, Valkyrie and PD-2 (People's Drone) are popular with the military. The primary function of reconnaissance drones is to scout out the locations of enemy troops and depots, enabling both artillery and long-range HIMARS missile systems to target objectives accordingly.
In the category of first-person view (FPV) drones, controlled from the perspective of a virtual pilot on board, experts single out the models Pegasus, Bucephal, Bat and Vampire. The vertical-take-off multicopter drones are capable of carrying and dropping small bombs. These drones are procured for the Ukrainian army through fundraising, and as part of the government's "Drone Army" project.
One of the Ukrainian developments about which little is known is the Beaver kamikaze drone, manufactured by the private company UkrJet. It can allegedly fly up to 1,000 kilometers, but no official information is yet available. Observers claim that these drones have been used on numerous occasions to hit targets in Moscow. Russian media have also published images of drones, similar to the UkrJet UJ-22 Airborne, which they say have made it as far as the Russian capital. The RUBAKA kamikaze drone is another example of a long-range attack drone developed by Ukraine. Little is known about this model, either.
These drones are manufactured according to the same principle as the Iranian Shahed drones that Russia uses to attack Ukraine. The GPS-guided kamikaze drones can be armed with warheads containing up to 50 kilograms of explosive. The director-general of the state-owned arms manufacturer Ukroboronprom, Herman Smetanin, says his company has also developed a drone of this kind, which has already gone into series production. Smetanin also hinted at the existence of "more powerful models."
Ukrainian army needs large attack drones
"We have increased drone production one-hundredfold, in some cases 150-fold, possibly even more," says Giorgi Tskhakaia. He is an adviser to Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, and one of the architects of the Drone Army project. He stresses that there will never be enough drones. "Drones are always in short supply because they are urgently needed," he told DW. Tskhakaia says that at the start of the Russian invasion there were seven drone manufacturers in Ukraine, and a year and a half later there are 150, most of them private companies.
Valeriy Romanenko, a senior staff member at the State Aviation Museum, describes Ukraine's progress over the past eighteen months in producing its own drones as a "leap forward." The aviation expert explains: "At the start of the war, we only had Turkish Bayraktar drones. By the summer of 2023, we officially had an additional 28 drones, nine of them kamikaze drones."
But this is not enough, he says. Kamikaze drones are Ukraine's weak spot. "If we want to carry out mass attacks on Russian arms factories, airfields and depots, we need heavy drones that can penetrate the roof of a building and hit the target inside. The number of Beavers and RUBAKs we have right now is like a teaspoonful; we need to be able to rain them down by the bucketful."
Standardization or variety?
Romanenko believes it would be possible to increase the quantity of attack drones manufactured in Ukraine by consolidating the efforts of different manufacturers and equipping their products with similar components. "So far, we have not succeeded in selecting one or two individual drones and mass-producing them," he said. "CRPA antennas, controllers, electronic components, engines, and other equipment differ from one manufacturer to another. This results in fragmentation in drones, meaning that we can't produce them on such a large scale as the Russians."
Nonetheless, Giorgi Tskhakaia from the Drone Army project believes the state will adhere to the philosophy of the open market and free competition, because the more manufacturers there are, the more intensive the research and development of new products. "We cannot defeat Russia in a conventional way," Tskhakaia emphasizes. "We have to be more innovative. And competition creates innovation."
This article was originally written in Ukrainian.