The volunteers fighting to save Ukraine from Russia-backed separatists realized early on they had a major vulnerability: they couldn’t see their enemy from above.
That’s when Yury Kasyanov, a former journalist and advertising executive, whose own son had joined the fight as a soldier, sought to build a drone that could turn the tides.
He started making homemade flying wing type drones out of styrofoam and Chinese parts. As word of his project spread, he recruited more helpers and funding. Now, working out of a small warehouse on the edge of central Kyiv, Kasyanov is working with 10 full-timers, money from crowdfunding, and a big, unnamed Ukrainian investor. They call the company Matrix-UAV.
Meanwhile, the conflict is still raging. From 2014 to 2017, over 10,000 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine, with no end in sight.
Matrix-UAV’s latest announcement is for a monster, 8-foot drone called The Commander, which promises to provide not only visibility but also evacuate a soldier from the battlefield, carry weapons, and more.
To get the inside story on Matrix-UAV, Inverse spoke to Kasyanov and the team lead on the latest project, Andrey Pulyaev.
What experience do you have making drones?
Pulyaev: I used to be involved in aircraft modeling in the ‘80s, but my main civilian job was as a vehicle engine expert specializing in fuel systems. When Yury Kasyanov asked Ukrainians for help with his drone projects on social media, I wrote back explaining what I do, and I joined the collective in 2015.
I was a volunteer. There were no Saturdays and Sundays, there were no weekends. From morning until night, we were building and repairing drones for the front. That was our collective. And then, when the collective turned into what it is today, I wanted to work on this project.
Kasyanov: I had no experience. I just knew this was something that was needed, so I figured it out.
When did the idea for the Commander drone start?
Pulyaev: It started during a conversation in the early part of last year. We were talking about our needs, and we knew there was a need for a universal platform that could respond to a variety of situations on the front. We wanted a drone that could carry a large payload, hopefully even large enough to be able to evacuate wounded soldiers from the battlefield if needed.
But it’s really complicated to design that type of drone from scratch. So that’s why we decided to start with this size drone, and when we perfect this size, we’re going to scale it up.
What makes it so unique?
Pulyaev: It’s a combination. There’s no quadcopter with a combination like this today. We took the most useful and effective parts from other quadcopters and molded them into one. There’s a gasoline engine in the middle of the frame and electric engines power the side propellers. It’s very complicated, and that challenges me. In my previous background, I was repairing fuel systems in vehicles and this is much more complicated because it’s a mix of hydraulics, electrical, and fuel.
Kasyanov: We think we’ll be able to use this platform to fire Anti Tank Guided Missiles. We know we can carry the payload effectively, but we’re a civilian company, so we need the Ministry of Defence to give us the greenlight on our project to actually test fire ATGMs.
If we can live fire ATGMs, and prove that we can implement a stabilized firing ability from the sky, which would be very difficult but not impossible, then we’ll have an incredibly unique weapon.
Inverse discussed their claims with a European military officer and engineer who specializes in drone technology and asked to remain anonymous. He pointed out that the Russian military had been experimenting with the ability to fire upon tanks using drones, but that it didn’t seem as though they’d been able to nail down stabilization, either. In the experiment, it seemed as though they were using Rocket Propelled Grenades and not ATGMs. The distinction is very important because RPGs are a “dumb” weapon, meaning that once fired, there is no control over the projectile, while ATGMs, are “guided” meaning that they should track true to their intended target. In that way, the ATGM is a much more effective weapon.
“Stabilization really is the most difficult part of the puzzle if you’re looking to fire horizontally,” said the officer. “Also, when you look at the ISIS bomb drones, they have the benefit of working from altitudes of 90+ meters so they’re hard to detect. The ATGM drone would need to be low. And the Matrix drone now is pretty loud in the video. So I’m not sure how survivable it is. And hitting targets would be a challenge.”
But the guys at Matrix are confident they are onto something extraordinary.
How do you think this drone could help Ukraine?
Kasyanov: If we had 100 of these on the front, the war would be over in a week.
We can lose 50 of them without loss of life to our guys. These drones can destroy enemy tanks, enemy artillery, enemy fortified positions, and avoid our own losses.
What challenges were involved in building this?
Kasyanov: We started this in November, so most of our test flights were done during the harsh Ukrainian winter, when temperatures reached -20 degrees celsius on many days.
Will we see this drone on the frontline?
Kasyanov says that although he’s shown the work to Ukraine’s military officials, they’ve given no indication that they’re interested in purchasing the drone.
He says that the cost is around $100,000 per drone (for comparison, a low cost military drone is considered to range from $500,000 - $1,000,000).
Who would the buyers be?
Kasyanov says that he hopes Western countries would take an interest but that it’s unlikely, so they are more concentrated in finding buyers from the United Arab Emirates and the developing world, where a cheap military drone could be a game changer.