A massive Canadian-made drone rose into the sky over a village near Kyiv on Thursday, and began to scan the ground below for mines and other unexploded ordnance, as the Russian invasion of Ukraine approaches its fifth month.
Though the drone’s mission was only a demonstration flight intended to introduce a promising new demining technology, the ground below in Dmytrivka was designed to look as dangerous as possible.
“We have buried 12 different explosive pieces here, to replicate a real battlefield,” said Colonel Yury Tsekeniuk, who heads a unit of Kyiv combat engineers, also known as sappers.
The first drone of two flew for only a few minutes and used a magnetometer to scan magnetic fields in the area, as well as what lay beneath the terrain. After it landed, another unmanned aerial vehicle took off to go over the same ground with a device that scans non-metal fragments for possible explosives buried in the soil.
The collected data was then transferred to Cloud storage, so that artificial intelligence could begin mapping the area – providing information that will allow the sappers to speed up their dangerous work by telling them where to go, what to look for, and where not to step .
Drones like these, produced by Saskatoon-based DraganFly, can map a hectare of land in an hour – accelerating work that can take weeks if done by hand, while also eliminating many of the risks that sappers face.
Col. Tsekeniuk has been defusing unexploded remnants for eight years – since the start of the years-long conflict in eastern Ukraine that preceded Russia’s invasion of the country in late February. He said he wouldn’t know how effective the drones were until he saw the map they produced – a process that was expected to take several days.
“But it sounds attractive,” he said, “because we don’t need to put people in danger before sending in sappers.”
DraganFly chief executive officer Cameron Chell brought his team to the Kyiv region to see if they could help ease the challenge of demining the large areas of Ukraine that are also littered with other explosives after more than 100 days of war.
mr. Chell, who has been operating commercial and rescue drones for more than two decades, is excited about applying his expertise to Ukraine.
“We think we can speed up the demining process by about 40 per cent, which is really important, because in Azerbaijan, they have 40,000 square kilometers and it took 21 years to demine it,” he said, referring to the aftermath of the 1990s war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, a conflict that reignited in 2020.
There is no end in sight to Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the challenge posed by unexploded ordnance is already several times larger. “As I understand it here, there’s already 160,000 square kilometers to demine, so in theory it can take from 60 to 80 years” without the use of drones, Mr. Chell said.
Oleg Bondarenko, an MP who heads the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on environmental and natural resources policy, estimated that half of the country was contaminated to some degree by explosive ordnance.
DraganFly was invited to Ukraine by YellowBlue Force, a collective of volunteers that liaises with international business interested in supporting Ukraine.
“It is a crazy cost to demine Ukraine, in money and resources,” said Sergey Koshev, a board member of YellowBlue Force. “The idea is to bring the best technologies to Ukraine, otherwise it would take us dozens of years to do demining here.”
DraganFly’s drones are already used by law enforcement and rescue services in Canada and the United States. For example, the Ontario Provincial Police uses the UAVs to collect evidence for investigations, and in 2014, a drone was credited with saving hikers lost in a heavily wooded area in Nova Scotia.
The company, which Mr. Chell said has about 60 employees, went public last year, and its shares are traded on the Nasdaq stock exchange.
Private donors in Canada and the United States have backed the Ukraine demining work with approximately US$500,000, Mr. Chell said, and there’s an expectation that other funding will follow if and when the project launches full-scale work in the country.
mr. Chell said that he believed his technology could reduce the cost of mapping to about US$200 per hectare – which could help speed the clearance of agricultural fields that produce wheat and corn. Getting Ukrainian grain to market as soon as possible is crucial, not only to Ukrainian farmers, but to the global food supply, he said.
“We are not focused on the cost, we are focused on the saving. Whatever the cost is, it’s inconsequential to helping bring the economy back and keeping people safe.”
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