SOUTH UKRAINE — The images on the laptop are of a ghost town. The camera looking down pans and zooms in on a burnt-out school.
Sitting in the back of a Ukrainian military van, hidden under camouflage netting, Sacha monitors video from a surveillance drone. His team just launched the drone from a 30-foot-long slingshot. He has now crossed the front line and is scanning a village occupied by the Russians.
Sacha zooms in further.
“You see the burned machines,” he says, pointing to a pair of rusty-red metal carcasses in the schoolyard. A turret appears as the drone, flying almost a mile above the village, passes through the school. “It’s a burnt-out tank,” Ash said.
No cars are circulating in the streets. No Pedestrians. It appears to Ash that everyone in the village has fled. Various animals roam from yard to yard.
“You can see the cows,” he said, pointing to the screen. “They no longer belong to anyone. Unfortunately, animals also suffer in this war.”
Their task for the day is to determine if the Russian forces have completely withdrawn from this village. The area is contested and the Ukrainians have heavily shelled it with artillery in recent days. “We received this intelligence task this morning,” Sacha said, referring to Ukraine’s military intelligence service.
The resolution of the live-streamed video is good enough that Sacha claims he can recognize stray dogs by sight in many of the villages he monitors. The drone stores even higher resolution images in an on-board memory chip that its team can analyze more closely once the drone returns.
“The day before yesterday, the enemy truck was in the yard there,” Ash says, leaning closer to the laptop. “Now the truck is gone.”
Unit is named after a popular fictional character
This Ukrainian drone unit is named Karlson after a flying character from a classic Swedish children’s book, Karlsson on the roof.
They allowed NPR to visit them on the condition that their full names and location not be released.
The team uses various small drones that you can buy at an electronics store for a few thousand dollars. On this day, they operate their largest fixed-wing drone. They raised tens of thousands of dollars to buy it online. It looks like a miniature airplane, with a camera mounted on its nose.
The carlson The Air Surveillance Team is officially a home defense unit. In Ukraine, just about anyone can create a territorial defense unit. Some of them are just a bunch of guys with AK-47s taking turns manning checkpoints outside villages. Others are fully equipped infantry units that have been incorporated into the armed forces.
Karlson is made up of 23 men, mostly in their thirties, from the Dnipro region. Before the Russian invasion, none had military experience. The commander, who goes by the nom de guerre “Playboy,” says everyone on the team has different backgrounds. Playboy ran his own business.
“We have technical specialists, computer scientists,” he says.
Sacha, in fatigues, bulletproof vest and beard, looks exactly like the soldier. Playboy laughs, “Can you believe he was a politician!”
Sacha quickly corrects him: “Deputy. I was a deputy.
Drone surveillance supports what its commander calls the “fist of war”
The conflict in Ukraine is primarily an artillery war. Both sides shell each other’s positions on a front line that stretches for hundreds of kilometers along eastern and southern Ukraine. Playboy calls artillery the “fist of war.” He says he and his colleagues set up this drone surveillance unit to help this punch more accurately.
A spokesman for the Armed Forces of Ukraine declined to comment on the number of drone units like this the country has. She says they will not comment on military operations. But outside observers let’s say that in this conflict, thousands of drones are used by both sides.
Along most frontlines, cellphone and GPS signals are jammed and monitored by both Russians and Ukrainians. To communicate, Karlson’s team uses handheld walkie-talkies and a Starlink mobile connection offered by Elon Musk’s satellite internet company. If they spot a potential target, they use the Starlink connection to call other military units.
“Sometimes if we see a [Russian] convoy, we are in contact with the artillery unit,” says Sacha. “We give them the coordinates and they start bombing.
An aerial game of spy vs. spy
In the city of Zaporizhzhia, Denis Pasko, who is not part of the Karlson unit, leads a school of drones. He trains Ukrainian soldiers to use them both for surveillance and, in his own words, to “drop explosives on Russians’ heads.”
Pasko says drones can be incredibly useful for a military unit. They can give soldiers a relatively safe and quick view of the battlefield. But he warns that commercial drones are incredibly easy to track and often expose information about the operator’s location.
“You have to be close to the front lines,” he says. “And if the enemy knows your position, you may be dead.”
When a drone is “lost” in combat, Pasko says it’s usually not shot down. Usually, the enemy managed to take control of his navigation system. If a drone is caught by the enemy, says Pasko, it can give a lot of information.
“It has the geo-position of the operator. It keeps a history of all the places it was flying,” he says, “including the exact location of where it was launched. The enemy can immediately target the drone team with a missile or mortar rounds.”
Where Karlson’s team is working that day is a cluster of trees separating a field of recently harvested wheat from a long patch of sunflowers. Next to the van where Sasha and her colleagues are monitoring the drone, there are coffin-sized pits the team can dive into if the Russians start bombing their mobile base.
In addition to surveillance, the unit also attempts to track and intercept Russian drones – while, across the front line, Russian drone operators search for Karlson’s drones. It’s a spy vs. spy aerial game.
For several days, the work may involve hours of viewing video footage. Research. Looking for clues.
“That’s our task,” said Sacha. “We sit all day and watch.”
Amid animals and deserted houses on the laptop, he spots what could be a buried Russian tank. A patch of dirt the size of a trampoline appears to have been recently dug up and smoothed over. Sasha notes her position. He says he will take a closer look at the location on the high definition images when the drone returns.
Shelling can be heard in the distance. Sasha doesn’t even look up from her screen.
“Outgoing,” he mutters.
He says there is nothing to worry about. Their drone continues to scan the front line. And presumably, somewhere in the sky nearby, Russian drones are also scanning the landscape – looking for Karlson’s mobile base among the trees.