Latest technologies from Ukrainian
developers to protect the sky

11 March 2024
"We can shoot down planes many kilometres away, but are unable to down drones that fly the same route every night. That's just life," writes Telegram channel Nikolaevsky Vanek ("Vaniok from Mykolaiv"), a well-known Ukrainian military blogger, after the downing of a Russian A-50.
Russia has a lot of Shahed kamikaze drones. They are cheap, and can be produced by hundreds each month. At first, the Russians bought them in Iran, but eventually they launched their own production in Tatarstan.

Since the full-scale invasion began, the Russians launched 4,357 attack drones into Ukraine, and will produce another 6,000 by the end of 2025. In addition to the fact that every month the number of Russian UAVs in Ukrainian skies grows, they also vary their tactics, making them harder to shoot down.  

Ukraine has received air defence systems from its Western allies; however, the systems provided are insufficient to secure the entire 1,500-kilometre frontline. Besides, the number of missiles for these systems is limited, therefore, Ukraine’s forces have to use them to protect higher-priority targets. And with the dwindling technical support from the West, guarding the sky has become even more challenging.

It may appear that the Air Force has adapted, and significantly fewer Shaheds are hitting their targets. However, the actual percentage of hits has not decreased much; so, the technological race continues. Russia’s numbers and cheapness are countered by Ukrainian efficiency and ingenuity.

Giving up the sky to the enemy means giving up a strategic advantage. To prevent this, the Armed Forces, together with Ukrainian engineers and programmers, are looking for an asymmetric response to the threat of the Shahed.

Mobile teams and hybrid air defence

The modern Patriot, Iris-T, SAMP-T, and NASAMS systems provided to the Armed Forces of Ukraine by Western partners are good but expensive, and unsuitable for repelling Shaheds.

It takes about US$3 million to launch a single Patriot missile, which are in short supply, whereas one Shahed costs about US$100,000-200,000. If drones were to be shot down with expensive air defence systems, nothing would be left to counter the deadlier Russian missiles. That is why the Air Force uses advanced systems against Iranian drones only in exceptional cases.

Russia’s strategy around Shaheds is to litter the Ukrainian sky with cheap drones in hopes that at least a few of them will not be shot down and reach their targets, or simply exhaust Ukraine’s air defence before a large-scale missile strike. Thus, the means utilised against these drones have to be mass-produced and just as cheap.

Other Western air defence systems are helpful in this regard. For example, German Flakpanzer Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns have proven to be quite effective, and finding munitions for them is much easier. Although Ukraine has more than 50 Gepards, they are still not enough to cover the entire sky. These SPAAGs cannot always be in the right place at the right time.
At one point, it became clear that Western allies simply did not have enough available air defence assets to completely protect Ukraine’s sky. Therefore, Ukrainian designers and engineers had to rely on their own ingenuity.

An air defence system generally consists of three key elements: radar, launcher, and missiles. In Ukraine, the military is facing a situation where Soviet systems have launchers but no missiles, or sometimes Western launchers may be available, but without the critical part — the radar.

The obvious decision was to try to combine all parts and make a hybrid air defence weapon. This is how the FrankenSAM project was born. The concept is simple: put together all components Ukraine has, can produce or buy, and eventually merge them into a single system.

Thus, the old American RIM-7 anti-aircraft missiles, which are abundant in warehouses, were mated with the Soviet Buk SAM system, and Ukrainian radar stations were put together with the US-made Patriot and NASAMS launchers.

The Air Force already uses various kinds of FrankenSAMs". Last January, a prototype mixing Ukrainian and American elements even hit its first Shahed, giving hope for more protected skies.

However, the scale of this project was still insufficient. There was a need to devise something that could be manufactured in hundreds and scattered all over Ukraine.

This is how the concept of mobile fire teams armed with machine guns or small anti-aircraft missiles was conceived. The base idea is not new — this is how Russian drones have been intercepted in the combat zone since the full-scale invasion began. When the threat of Shaheds first emerged, twin machine guns were installed on civilian pickups, with spotlights and sights added.
The range of such air defence systems is only 1-2 kilometres; however, mobility is the forte of these teams. Each of them has a vehicle and an initial position that can be quickly changed if necessary. The scope for developing this idea is endless. Ukrainian troops are being supplied with new pick-ups, communications devices, thermal imagers, new deployment tactics are being invented, etc.

The number of mobile teams can be scaled up indefinitely, although they still have a certain effectiveness threshold, so the search for tools against Shaheds continued.

EW systems that shoot down Russian Shahed drones

As it turned out, Shaheds can be shot down even without any physical contact, with the help of electronic warfare (EW) systems. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have learnt how to do this as well.

Forbes has explained how Ukrainian troops use electronic warfare systems to down Russian drones. The Shahed has a powerful antenna that uses satellite signals to find the target. Ukrainian EW assets operate by overloading this navigation system with their own signals, thus diverting the drones.

Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said this is much more effective than standard signal jamming. The Iranian drones are yet to find a way to counteract this — they are simply unable to detect that the satellite signal is being tampered with. As a result, Shaheds have been landing fully intact instead of being destroyed in the sky more and more frequently.
A Ukrainian system called Pokrova is known to operate using this technology. Its specifications are kept under wraps and, other than its name, it is almost never spoken about publicly. One of the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Telegram channels recently mentioned a mysterious Lima EW system, which is also supposedly capable of shooting down Shaheds; however, this is the only public mention of this system.

The existence of these prototypes represents a positive trend, although it seems that the small scale of production and research still stands in the way of solving the Shahed problem. This was indirectly confirmed by an article by former commander-in-chief Valerii Zaluzhnyi published in The Economist. He said that the Russians had made a big leap in electronic warfare technology, while Ukraine was still lagging behind.

Since Ukraine’s strike and EW capabilities are still insufficient to ward off bothersome drones from Ukrainian skies, the available assets must be made to work with maximum efficiency. Ukraine boasts a number of solutions in this field as well.

How to protect the sky effectively

There is seemingly no singular solution to the problem, and none of the suggested options can become a game changer in air warfare. While it is difficult to increase the number of air defence systems quickly, at least Ukraine can squeeze the most out of each solution mentioned above.

First and foremost, air defence assets must be deployed in the right place and at the right time. To address this problem, special software was developed to analyse the Shaheds’ paths every night, enabling pattern prediction and effective deployment of air defence assets.

But in order to collect such data, let alone respond to it in real time, these Shaheds must be made visible. Detecting targets in a timely fashion and tracking the movements of enemy drones throughout their journey is essential, as lately they have been making more attempts to confuse the defenders of Ukraine’s skies by changing their course of flight.

Radars are known to be very expensive, and covering the entire territory of Ukraine with them would be challenging. At the same time, Ukrainian engineers can offer the cheaper and more widespread option of acoustic sensors.

Shaheds are known for their distinctive sound, often compared to that of a moped. Modern sensors are able not only to detect a Shahed, but also to determine its distance from the sensor and coordinates of the drone’s target and quickly transmit this data to the appropriate command post.

This is the principle behind the FENEK sound-ranging acoustic system, developed by Octava Defence. It is a network of acoustic signal receivers (sensors) integrated into a single system by a software and hardware "brain" that determines the azimuth, altitude, direction of motion, and type of the air target, all using complex mathematical calculations. The developers have taught this system to filter out any extraneous sounds. For example, telling an ordinary moped apart from a Shahed is no problem for the FENEK.
Oleksandr Kardakov, the founder of Octava Defence
For the system to operate efficiently, its acoustic signal receivers (sensors) must be installed in all vantage points along Ukraine’s border with Russia and Belarus, as well as around critical infrastructure facilities and areas in need of protection. All the data received will be collected and analysed in real time, and a detailed picture of what is happening in the sky will be developed on its basis. This would allow the Air Force to have a high level of situational awareness and make more informed decisions on the deployment of certain air defence assets.

Components of the FENEK sound-ranging acoustic system can be deployed not only to repel Shaheds, but also to detect Russian sabotage teams and FPV drones approaching Ukrainian defenders’ positions in the combat zone.

Another effective scenario for military applications of the acoustic system’s components is their engagement in counter-battery and counter-sniper operations.

In itself, the attempt to locate an enemy target by sound is not something fundamentally new. Similar means were used back in the Second World War. In today’s age of neural networks, superfast communications and data processing, this idea can be applied many times more effectively.

The state is known to be at least interested in such solutions. A similar system called Zvook ("Sound") created by another manufacturer was recently introduced at the Brave1 defence tech cluster.
Finally, smart acoustic sensors can come in handy even after the war. For example, to uphold order in crowded places, to collect data on urban noise pollution, etc.

Similarly, by taking advantage of cutting-edge technology, the Air Force can unlock the potential of visual surveillance through application of advanced cameras and thermal imagers. To this end, Compass Engineering has developed the ZIR smart surveillance system. It is capable of visually identifying a target and determining its speed and trajectory.

The ability to combine data from all sources into a single high-quality picture and choose the best way to engage the target will represent the next level of improved efficiency of the Air Force’s combat missions. This would require an aggregated system, and the developer of the FENEK and ZIR systems can offer another product — the SPHERE Unified Platform for Critical Infrastructure Protection, a system of an even higher level. The SPHERE automatically processes, summarises and analyses information provided by the radar control system, the FENEK sound-ranging acoustic system and the ZIR smart surveillance system, offering the relevant command posts the best projects of managerial actions to destroy potential threats.

The SPHERE supports a fully automated process of detecting all types of enemy drones with a high probability of success.

Using the SPHERE will help air defence to decide in just a few minutes on the best way to shoot down a Shahed, minimising the risk of human error. This is especially true given the general diversity of air defence systems and target detection methods, as systematising them and making them work together as a single large system is quite challenging.

In fact, unification of information is expected to become one of the key areas of technological development to protect Ukrainian skies.