switch to caption Image by Jason Beaubien/NPR In southern Ukraine, a member of a military surveillance team prepares to launch a drone from a wheat field.
Southern Ukraine NPR, Jason Beaubien The laptop shows pictures of a deserted town. The downward-facing camera pivots and closes in on an abandoned school.
Sacha is watching video from a surveillance drone while he is concealed beneath camouflage netting in the rear of a Ukrainian military truck. The drone was recently launched by his crew using a 30-foot-long slingshot. It has now crossed the front line and is looking towards a settlement that is under Russian control.
Sacha enlarges the focus.
He points to a pair of rust-red metal carcasses in the schoolyard and says, “You see the burning machines. As the drone passes over the school while about one kilometer above the settlement, a turret can be seen. That tank is scorched, says Sacha.
The streets are empty of moving automobiles. There are none. Sacha believes the entire village’s inhabitants have left. Animals of many kinds saunter from yard to yard.
He gestures toward the TV and says, “You can see the cows.” “They no longer belong to anyone. Unfortunately, this war also causes harm to animals.”
Sacha and a member of his drone team keep an eye on a live video feed from a drone they are flying over a region of Ukraine that is under Russian occupation. Caption by Jason Beaubien/NPR hidden
switch to caption Image by Jason Beaubien/NPR Sacha and a member of his drone team keep an eye on a live video feed from a drone they are flying over a region of Ukraine that is under Russian occupation.
NPR/Jason Beaubien It is their task for the day to ascertain whether Russian soldiers have completely evacuated this village. The region is in dispute, and the Ukrainians have recently pounded it heavily with artillery. Sacha refers to the Ukrainian military intelligence branch and says, “We got this mission from intelligence this morning.
In several of the villages Sacha observes, he claims he can identify stray dogs by sight thanks to the live-streamed video’s high definition. His team will be able to do a more in-depth analysis of the drone’s on-board memory chip, which is where even higher resolution photographs are stored.
Sacha replies, moving closer to the laptop, “The enemy truck was in the yard there the day before yesterday. “The vehicle has left now.”
THE UNIT HAS A FAMOUS FICTIONAL CHARACTER AS ITS NAME Karlson is the name of a flying character from the well-known Swedish children’s book Karlsson on the Roof that inspired this Ukrainian drone unit.
They agreed to let NPR visit them in exchange for keeping their location and their names a secret.
The crew uses a variety of small drones that can be purchased for a few thousand dollars at an electronics store. They are using their largest fixed-wing drone on this particular day. To buy this online, they raised tens of thousands of dollars. It has a camera mounted on the nose and resembles a little plane.
Officially classified as a territorial defense unit is the Karlson aerial surveillance team. In Ukraine, practically anyone can establish a territorial defense force. Some of them are only a group of men that alternately patrol checkpoints outside of settlements while brandishing AK-47s. Others are infantry units that have been integrated into the military and are fully equipped.
23 Dnipro-area males, most of them in their 30s, make up Karlson. None of them had any military experience before the Russian invasion. Everyone on the crew, according to the commander, who goes by the alias “Playboy,” has various histories. Playboy once had his own company.
We have IT and technological professionals, he claims.
Sacha appears to be a true soldier in his body armor, fatigues, and beard. “Can you believe he used to be a politician,” playboy chuckles.
One of the drones from the Karlson drone unit is collected after it lands in a wheat field. Caption by Jason Beaubien/NPR hidden
switch to caption Image by Jason Beaubien/NPR One of the drones from the Karlson drone unit is collected after it lands in a wheat field.
NPR/Jason Beaubien He is swiftly corrected by Sacha: “Deputy. I was an officer.”
THE “FIST OF WAR” IS SUPPORTED BY DRONE SURVEILLANCE, SAYS THE COMMANDER. Most of the fighting in Ukraine involves artillery. Along a battle line that runs hundreds of miles along eastern and southern Ukraine, both sides are shelling each other’s positions. The “fist of war” is how Playboy refers to artillery. He claims that the purpose of setting up this drone surveillance system with his coworkers was to make that fist punch more precise.
A representative for the Ukrainian Armed Forces declined to comment on the number of drone units the nation had. They won’t comment on military actions, she claims. However, outside observers claims that both sides in this fight are employing thousands of drones.
Both the Russians and the Ukrainians jam and observe cellphone and GPS signals along the majority of the battle lines. The Karlson crew employs portable walkie-talkies and a mobile Starlink connection, both of which were given by Elon Musk’s satellite internet provider. They use the Starlink connection to contact other military units if they see a prospective target.
When we spot a “Russian” convoy, we occasionally get in touch with the artillery battalion, according to Sacha. “They begin shelling after we give them the coordinates.”
A SPY VS. SPY MOVIE PLAYED FROM THE AIR Denis Pasko, who is not a member of the Karlson unit, oversees a drone school in the city of Zaporizhzhia. He instructs Ukrainian forces on how to use them to “drop explosives on the Russians heads” as well as for spying.
Drones, according to Pasko, can be very helpful to a military outfit. They can swiftly and reasonably safely provide soldiers with a view of the battlefield. However, he cautions that commercial drones are quite simple to follow and frequently reveal information about the operator’s whereabouts.
The Karlson team member Sacha is getting ready to fly a surveillance drone over southern Ukraine. Drones are being used by both the Russians and the Ukrainians to try and advance their cause. Caption by Jason Beaubien/NPR hidden
switch to caption Image by Jason Beaubien/NPR The Karlson team member Sacha is getting ready to fly a surveillance drone over southern Ukraine. Drones are being used by both the Russians and the Ukrainians to try and advance their cause.
NPR/Jason Beaubien You must be near the front lines, he advises. “And you may be killed if the adversary learns where you are.”
According to Pasko, a drone that is “lost” in battle is typically not shot down. Usually, the enemy was able to seize control of the ship’s navigational equipment. According to Pasko, if a drone is captured by the opposition, it might reveal a lot of information.
“It contains the operator’s geo-position. It records a history of every area it has been, even the precise spot from whence it was launched, he claims. The drone squad is immediately vulnerable to missile or mortar attacks from the adversary.”
The area where the Karlson team is working on this particular day is a group of trees separating a lengthy stretch of sunflowers from a wheat field that has recently been harvested. There are coffin-sized trenches nearby the van where Sasha and his team are monitoring the drone that they may hide in if the Russians begin to shell their mobile base.
While Russian drone operators search for Karlson’s drones on the other side of the front line, the unit is also seeking to locate and intercept Russian drones in addition to conducting surveillance. It’s a spy vs. spy game in the air.
The occupation can frequently entail spending hours watching video. Searching. searching for hints.
This is our job, explains Sacha. “We watch for the entire day,”
He notices what might be a Russian tank buried in the ground among the animals and abandoned homes on the laptop. A dirt patch the size of a trampoline appears to have recently been dug up and smoothed up. Sasha writes down where it is. When the drone comes back, he says he’ll examine the area on the high-definition photographs more closely.
The distant sound of shelling is audible. Sasha barely even raises his head from his screen.
He murmurs, “Outgoing.”
He claims there is no need for concern. They continue to check the front line with their drone. Additionally, it is likely that adjacent Russian drones are scouring the area in the air in search of Karlson’s mobile base hidden amid the woods.