Drones in Ukraine have the same problem cell phones do in cold winter weather, giving pilots less time to hunt

Ukrainian soldiers prepare a long range drone in the snow
Ukrainian soldiers prepare a long range drone near the Bakhmut frontline in Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast on January 12, 2024.Ignacio Marin/Anadolu via Getty Images
  • Frigid winter conditions are affecting drone batteries in Ukraine like they do cell phones and some other electronics.

  • It means drones can't spend as long in the air, a drone commander and an expert told BI.

  • It's an issue for both Russia and Ukraine, but it's a bit worse for Ukraine as it relies more on cheaper drones.

Drone warfare has become a key part of the conflict in Ukraine, with both sides using the equipment to track each others' movements, direct troops and artillery, and attack enemy soldiers and weaponry.

Drones are being used more in this war more than in any other conflict in history, and both sides are working to grow their arsenals as much as possible.

But the onset of freezing winter temperatures changes what's possible in the fight by providing less daylight time, exhausting batteries faster, and even fogging up the cameras that drones rely on to be effective.

A Ukrainian soldier with a gun walks in the snow with a large, dark grey smoke plume in front of him
Ukrainian soldiers take part in medical training on the frontline in Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast on January 14, 2024.Ignacio Marin/Anadolu via Getty Images

Cmdr. Vitaliy Kryukov, a loitering-munition commander for Ukraine's elite Adam Tactical Group, told Business Insider that fighting with drones in the winter comes with far more limitations.

"The biggest challenge is weather," Kryukov said.

Part of that is how the temperature "influences the batteries," he said.

James Patton Rogers, a drone warfare expert and executive director of the Cornell Brooks Tech Policy Institute, told BI this "reduced battery time has a direct effect on the tactical battlefield effectiveness of the drone because it reduces your loitering time above your enemy."

He compared it to what happens to cell phones in winter: "In the winter, you take your smartphone outside, and you'll notice that soon enough the battery will deplete much, much quicker."

This is an issue that affects both sides as they both use cheap, civilian-grade drones, Rogers said, but it affects Ukraine a bit more as it relies more heavily on those cheaper drones than Russia, though Ukraine's military is reducing its dependency on them.

Ukraine, which is running low on a number of things it needs for the war, such as artillery ammunition, also appears to struggle more with drone shortages than Russia, making it less likely to use its drones to hit targets when the conditions are unfavorable, Rogers said.

A Ukrainian military man equips and prepares a drone for flight and prepares ammunition at positions 4 kilometers from the frontline as the special unit "Achilles" is preparing to carry out a combat mission at night on the heavy drone "Vampire", which the Russians call "Baba Yaga" on November 12, 2023 in the Bakhmut District, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian military man equips and prepares a drone for flight in November 2023 in near Bakhmut, Ukraine.Kostya Liberov/Libkos via Getty Images

The short winter days are a challenge for the Ukrainians as well. In the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka that has become a fighting hotspot, for example, sunrise in January is around 7am and sunset is around 4pm.

It gets dark early, and Russia uses the darkness to move and conduct attacks, Kryukov shared.

But, to use drones in the dark, Ukraine has to upgrade its drones or use more expensive ones, he said — making it harder for Ukraine to justify attacks that will destroy the drone, which is how it often attacks Russia.

Upgrading drones to make them able to see at night, or simply using better-equipped drones, can be much more expensive.

For instance, while cheap first-person-view drones carrying explosives might only cost a few hundred dollars, some of Ukraine's better night-fighting drones can easily run for $100,000 or more. These drones are not the type that slam into targets and explode on impact, and there are fewer of them.

"Operating in the dusk or dawn or at night requires more expensive equipment to be on board, and obviously for Kamikazes, everyone is trying to make it as cheap as possible as it's single-flight equipment," Kryukov said.

Rogers also described the short days as a problem for Ukraine, saying that unless it has night-suitable equipment it can use, it "can't operate during vast waves of the 24 hour period because it is increased periods of darkness during the winter."

"It's going to have a detrimental effect on Ukraine's ability to strike the targets it wants to strike," he said.

Any snow or fog can also hinder effective drone operations by blocking their cameras, Kryukov said.

But Ukraine has figured out workarounds for some winter problems that "help a lot," he said, such as using lubricants to stop the propellers from frosting over.

He said neither Russia or Ukraine is stopping their fight despite the conditions: "For sure Ukraine won't stop for the winter."

Ukraine is investing heavily in more advanced drones. It is making its own and majorly upgrading off-the-shelf drones to make them more powerful. The aim is to try to fix issues or address challenges without massively increasing their cost.

Read the original article on Business Insider