Ukrainian startups are aiding the electronic warfare war effort. (Ukraine photo by Kollen Post, background map via Google Maps, graphic by Breaking Defense)

KYIV — At just over 600 meters up over the Russian line, right around sunset, the video feed from the surveillance drone went jagged. “Do you remember dial-up internet? Something like that,” recounts Ivan Kaunov, who was piloting the system at the time.

“I realized I couldn’t give a command to my drone,” he told Breaking Defense. “I thought, I’ll try to give at least one more command, one of the easiest: to lower altitude to a minimum, and then at that altitude, if I’m lucky enough, then that bastard will have GPS.”

It was not the first time Kaunov wrestled with an errant drone. He’s been in rotations at the front, fighting for his native Ukraine, on and off since being mobilized in April 2022.

The drone was set to automatically head back to its launch site — if it had clean GPS access. But GPS is an increasingly rare commodity at the front, so when he lost the visual link and all subsequent contact with his drone, he knew there was nothing to do but wait. Around midnight, “this bastard comes back,” he says, chuckling at his own luck.

It’s become axiomatic that the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces is the most physically brutal that Europe has seen since WWII. In terms of casualties and misery, it seems out of place in the modern era. At the same time, that frontline is almost certainly the most signal-dense conflict zone in human history.

Drones revolutionized fighting in the first years of the war, and Ukraine hustled to build a home-grown industry. But the recent focus has now shifted to intense electronic warfare being used to aid or disrupt not only drone operations but basic communication between fighters. And just as with the rise of Ukraine’s drone efforts, local inventors are stepping up with homemade solutions to try and give their countrymen on the front lines an edge.

The Ukrainian government has leaned into these small experimental teams in the same way the war effort depends on the continuous work of individual volunteers. Last year, the Ministries of Defense and Digital Transformation announced Brave1, a joint funding and support platform for Ukraine’s defense tech.

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“Most of these means are short-range EW, designed to protect the military on the front lines directly,” wrote Nataliia Kushnerska, the project lead of Brave1, in a statement on the latest electronic warfare projects to Breaking Defense.

Kushnerska noted more than 100 electronic warfare projects registered with Brave1, including more than 50 developers and manufacturers. Nine of these projects have “been codified in accordance with NATO standards” and are aiming for government contracts internationally.

Kaunov is one of many Ukrainians in the war who is trying to apply and scale his experience operating drones. He recently got approval for $25,000 in Brave1 funding, for a startup called Buntar Aerospace, which produces both the Buntar-1 drone and software that streamlines offline operations for a range of drones.

In addition to Kaunov, Breaking Defense talked with two of these Brave1-backed startups, whose technology is being developed, tested and sent out to the field on a continuous basis, to better understand the EW battle taking place in the trenches of the world’s largest military conflict.

Falcons: Tracking Radio Signals In The Sky

“This war showed us many more radio signals than ever before,” Svitlana Braslavska, who runs marketing and operations for Ukrainian firm Falcons, tells Breaking Defense.

Falcons sells the Eters, three-piece stations that parse nearby radio signals, “not only drone signals but also repeaters, different technical equipment, big drones, little drones, radio stations — all radio signals in our range,” Braslavska says. Making sense of the electrical chaos — finding the threat signal in the noise — can provide a decisive front-line edge.

Yehor — the firm’s CEO and an active soldier, who asked to be identified only by a first name — claims the systems sort those signals with a level of tactical precision missing from today’s battlefield. The first Eters got their test runs thanks to Yehor himself, who has been fighting all along the line, proselytizing the Eters on the way.

In their set-up, the stations are fairly simple tripods that reach into the sky, with a base pegged in with tent stakes. One stands on a hill looking out over the south side of Kyiv, where a motocross racing area bumps up against a training ground where men in camo are running drills.

Drones periodically zip overhead, most of which Yehor identifies immediately as FPVs — larger than the DJI Mavics.

He and tech lead on the project, Oleksandr Barabash, show off an interface that displays flashes of red across a radar screen as it catches signals of various stripes — some from drones passing, and even low-band levels from 5G cellphones, if the settings are right.

There are now dozens of the systems with various units at the frontlines, he says.

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Each of the UAVs that both the Russian and Ukrainian sides have integrated into combat puts out its own “fingerprint” of a signal, Barabash says.

“If you’re tracking them in real time, and if you can draw a line, where they’re coming from and when they’re going to you, you can determine whether it’s our drone or an enemy drone,” Barabash notes. “So basically, you have to keep tracking those in real time and we’re talking about big numbers, fascinating data. If you grow the data, you can track basically every drone up in the air.”

The key virtue: thinking small, a common theme in Ukraine’s military inventiveness. These systems are more mobile and cheaper than other systems that the Ukrainians use to monitor broader spectra — meaning far more information slips through the cracks. Yehor packs his Eter up in about the time it takes to take down a tent.

Falcons touts that they have gotten production up to 10 of their three-towered stations per month. Their goal for the next three months is to nail down a government contract beyond the Brave1 funding that will allow them to expand production — while also making smaller systems.

That production is, however, taking place in homes or small workshops. Many of the mass-produced components are imported, as large factories in Ukraine often fall victim to Russian missiles.

“It doesn’t make sense right now to build a new Ukrainian military industry base,” says Yehor.

Himera: Redefining Radios

Despite a great deal of intrigue about revolutionary encryption software, the classic walkie-talkie remains an absolute must for secure communications along the front. And like with Falcons, the key development is not designing the latest and greatest systems — it’s distributing models across the line.

The most popular option today, says Misha Rudominsky of local startup Himera, is inexpensive Motorolas like the XT460. But, “even Motorola would say, ‘these weren’t designed for these kinds of situations,’” Rudominsky tells Breaking Defense.

Meanwhile, the more advanced signal-hopping and encrypted walkie talkies are prohibitively expensive — and beyond that, unwieldy.

“The Western way of fighting a war involves a small, specialized [system],” he says. “They don’t really care how easy it is to use.”

To bridge the gap, Himera says it applies the philosophy of consumer electronics to war with encrypted signal-hopping walkie talkies that it can get into the hands of masses of troops. In addition to a lower cost, a key advantage, says Rudominsky, is ease of use, with an owner’s manual of around 10 pages.

Despite shying away from insecure cellular networks and lacking a keyboard, they can link with cell phones via Bluetooth, both to configure their transmissions and to allow soldiers to text — which goes from a convenience to a necessity in the din of artillery fire, for example.

Himera says its walkie talkies can operate by linking with neighboring systems. They expand their ranges via mesh networks — effectively chains that can expand far beyond the range of any individual system. Rudominsky says that he’s known soldiers to hang a Himera from drones that they send up over a treeline or other rough terrain to get to the next stop over.

There are, he says, 3,000 of Himera’s walkie talkies in use already, with a new version, the G1 Pro launching in the next month.

Buntar: Drones For GPS-Denied Environments

In addition to gunfire, a UAV in the sky today faces a wilderness of jammers and spoofers — signals that impersonate satellites, with the result that they skew a drone’s sense of location, like those constantly bedeviling Kaunov.

Until recently, the most spoofers he had seen on the front at one time was six. Many frontline drones are programmed not to run on GPS guidance if they were getting information from fewer than seven satellites. Ivan noted with horror the moment that he realized that Russia was using 15 spoofers at one point on the front — meaning it would be virtually impossible to receive and rely on a set of true signals for navigation.

“You just have to accept the reality that you do not have reliable GPS,” says Kaunov.

Indeed, any civilian who comes up even in cities near the front, from Kharkiv to Kramatorsk, will notice pretty quickly that even phone GPS becomes remarkably unreliable, showing a location sometimes miles away.

Kaunov’s response: Take everything lo-fi. Beyond the physical drone — the Buntar-1, or “Rogue One,” a direct Star Wars reference — Buntar works on software that programs missions so that the drone can operate increasingly freely from the operator.

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Inspired by his experience sending commands to drones with the expectation that he won’t have any linkage with them for long stretches, the Buntar software allows a pilot to pre-program routes and actions for their drones so that they do not remain dependent on the ongoing control — especially FPV — that the Russian invasion has made famous.

Principally, that entails using autonomous visual guidance rather than GPS. And rather than sending back ongoing information, the drone can function as basically a camcorder, recording visual information in a memory card to be reviewed when it makes it back to base.

That forgoes the evocative video game effect of FPV operations, but if footage isn’t broadcast in a signal and is instead stored on a memory card in a drone, it’s almost impossible to tamper with without physically taking the drone down — which admittedly happens all the time.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s one that allows operators to keep the fight going. And that is largely what all three of the startups above, as well as their compatriots across the line and the country, aim for: a way to stay in the fight and give their countrymen an edge, even if it’s a small or temporary one.

Lessons Learned, On Both Sides

These firms are young start-ups, so their ambitions for new developments are extensive and sometimes rosy.

Falcons and Buntar are both advertising more artificial intelligence in their software for respectively, recognizing signals and scenery. Falcons’ next stage of development is progressively miniaturizing its stations. Models that fit in a backpack are on the way. Yehor waxes poetic about a version that can be reduced to receivers that affix to solders’ helmets, like antennae on army ants.

Buntar, meanwhile, is trying to adapt its software to a wider range of drones and more precise missions.

The laundry list of plans for Ukrainian comms firms are contingent upon inhumanly rapid development — and waves of foreign investment, which they are overtly searching for.

But, in the words of Kaunov, “Let’s just acknowledge the fact that Ukrainians are very inventive.”

One challenge, says Samuel Bendett, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that Russia is getting to see firsthand how this technology is used, and is incorporating those lessons almost as quickly as the Ukranians can scrap their way to another idea.

“The problem, of course in Ukraine, is that it’s a mirror image,” Bendett tells Breaking Defense. “And as soon as a tactic has been proven successful by one side, it’s copied and amplified by another side. Which prompts the original side to develop countermeasures, which prompts the other side to develop countermeasures against those countermeasures. The technological race is ongoing, so Ukraine’s advantages normally don’t last long.”

While Ukrainian sources have been highlighting advances in Russian EW recently, that is largely a means of advertising the problems facing troops – one that Russian sources, much less likely to be picked up by Western media, are replicating in reverse.

“It’s the same kind of narrative applied by both sides, maybe to amplify the threat and to highlight their own effort,” says Bendett. It belies a more embarrassing problem: “Most drones in this war are lost from electronic warfare fratricide.”

The Changing Lines

Like many of Ukraine’s soldiers, Kaunov finds himself frequently bouncing around the country, alternating between Buntar in Kyiv and the bunkers at the front, with little notice between calls from his commander to drive himself back to the line.

A relatively sleepless existence, but it at least is an improvement upon the early days of the war, when he found himself in machine gun range, lamenting the lack of artillery to provide covering fire.

“Once you were shooting with your machine guns, you disclose your position, and then specifically in this position Russian would strike back with a lot of artillery,” he explains. “And trying to explain to our artillery guys on the radio where the enemy is, lots of time I would hear, ‘we’re out of ammo.’ And it was like, God, it’s 10 o’clock in the morning. You’re out of ammo? It’s going to be a long day.”

Kaunov’s turn to drones is symbolic of why Ukraine has taken the war electronic — an attempt to escape or at least limit the misery and continued exposure of the trenches to which soldiers like he and Yehor still have to return constantly.

A coalition of nations have banded together to supply Ukraine with classic arms and ammunition that it struggles to produce en masse on its own. Some are providing weapons for Ukraine’s electronic warfare as well. But small Ukrainian teams like these offer the quickest response time to the constant granular evolutions in EW that their countrymen face. In that war, help is coming from much closer to home.

Kollen Post is a freelance journalist, photographer and interpreter based in Kyiv, focusing on technology and wartime development. His work has appeared in Radio Free Europe, Fortune, the Cipher Brief, Science Magazine, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. A native of west Michigan, he lived in Moscow from 2015–2017 and Washington, DC from 2017–2022. He speaks Russian and Ukrainian. His BA comes from Vanderbilt University. You can reach him at [email protected]