The drone hung up in a tree near the Ukrainian village of Gorbivtsi. When border patrol officers got the thing down, it was clear this was no small recreational aircraft. The quadcopter was so large it took two men to load it into the bed of a truck.
The Ukrainian borders are a hotbed of drone activity as the country continues its ongoing struggle against the Russians. But even by the strange standards of the area, this machine was unique. Aside from its large size, it appeared to be possibly homemade.
So what the heck is it? Turns out this unmanned aircraft may have little to do with Russia and a lot to do with smuggling cigarettes.
The Ukrainian government is involved in a multi-front drone war that’s been going on since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014. The Russians used advanced drones like the Orlan-10 to target long-range artillery during the conflict, and maintain a presence along the Ukraine’s tense eastern border. In places like Donbass, the Ukrainian military has been downing what it calls “spy drones” operated by Russia or their proxy militias.
However, this drone was found about a kilometer from the border of Romania. It appears to be part of another drone war, this one against smugglers. “The aircraft can be used for the movement across the state border of smuggled tobacco products, narcotic substances, weapons, ammunition or means of terror,” the Ukrianian government said in a release.
Cigarette smuggling is big business in the Ukraine, estimated at $2 billion annually. Contraband Ukrainian smokes are sold to the rest of Europe tax-free, generating huge profits and inspiring the kind of ingenuity seen with cocaine the U.S.-Mexico border. Romania is a key destination in this smuggling trade, and the drone’s discovery near that border means it was probably part of a cigarette ring.
The typical Ukrainian smuggling operation involves small, commercially available aircraft. In one Radio Liberty report, guards described hours of flights using DJI drones dropping multiple cartons of contraband cigarettes. Border guards have seen even stranger methods. The government says that in 2017 and 2018 they have seized radio controlled airplanes, drones, and even a smuggler’s hang glider.
Drone v. Drone
Tracking smugglers can be dangerous work. Earlier this year, a Ukrainian border guard followed a short-range drone to discover its operators. The three-man smuggling crew shot the guard with a rubber bullet and fled. Reinforcements found and arrested the smugglers.
The Ukrainian government is adapting its tactics. Smugglers love quadcopter drones not only because they’re cheap, but also because they fly low and avoid radar, avoiding the gaze of most conventional air defenses on the border. As a result, the new trend in border protection is to field drones of their own.
In April, the Ukrainian government started flying Spectator-M drones over Donbass to conduct surveillance on Russian-backed militias. The Ukrainian company Matrix is selling quadcopters “for targeting enemy ground sources, for monitoring civilian and military installations, watching over specific parts of the land and water borders.”
These surveillance drones will work better while seeking smuggler operators who fly small drones across the border, since the operators need to be in close proximity.
The bad news about finding a larger drone like this new one is that these aircraft have longer ranges, and then the operators will be harder to spot. The bird’s size means fewer flights with bigger payloads. And the fact that the machine is home-built will complicate the problem of finding whom it belongs to.