Olexi Kroshchenko, a sleek Ukrainian helicopter pilot, stood shoulder to shoulder with Chase Bailey, a bearded hipster from Las Vegas, and learned how to fly drones in war zones.
Within days, Kroshchenko hoped some of the 10 specialized quadcopters donated by an American manufacturer would be heading for the treacherous holes in bombed-out apartments and skyscrapers, giving Ukrainian rescuers a better chance of reaching victims.
“A little more throttle,” Bailey said, gently touching the joystick controller. “Look at the screen, not the drone.”
“Da, yes,” said Kroshchenko, 25, as he mastered the subtle pitch and yaw of a device designed – with laser guidance, night vision and a concrete-penetrating signal – to operate in the kind of macabre rubble created daily by Russian missiles and shells.
Nearby, two others – Ukrainian military officers who had secretly traveled to Poland – were practicing another wartime application: using the drones to fly over ridgelines and buildings to observe enemy forces and provide targeting to artillery units and reconnaissance information to commanders.
They were rehearsing these new skills in the middle of sheds and garages outside a public security facility in northern Poland, where the military officers and 10 others from the Ukrainian emergency service had come to meet a team from Brinc , a Seattle-based drone manufacturer.
Polish officials asked that the exact location of the training not be identified for security reasons.
Ukrainians now hoped the plane would make a difference in the growing hellscapes of Kharkiv, Kherson and Dnipro, Ukrainian cities where lack of equipment and relentless attacks have made rescues difficult and perilous.
“There are many destroyed buildings and the conditions are too dangerous,” said Yan Koshman, a rescue official from an area near the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv who was waiting for his turn at the controls. “This drone can go where we can’t.”
This two-day training and $150,000 worth of drones and supplies is part of the rapid transfer of technology, expertise and supplies to Ukraine by foreign companies and volunteers.
Across Poland and other European neighbors, pop-up teams are finding ways to funnel critical resources across the border, from upgraded vehicles and body armor to specialized orthopedic equipment and medicine.
The drone training was organized with the help of Ukraine’s Freedom Alliance, a newly created non-profit organization that seeks to bring some efficiency to the jumble of supplies and expertise to the war zone. .
After some basics, the training progressed to more difficult maneuvers. Bailey and the other instructors showed how the drone, called Lemur, could push through a blocked door, enter confined spaces, flip over and fly if flipped on its back.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Kroshchenko said after Bailey intentionally hit the drone through the side window of an abandoned tailgate. After the craft was steered into the car twice, the glass broke in a glistening rain of shards.
Blake Resnick, the 22-year-old founder of Brinc, watched with approval as the Ukrainians put themselves to the test. “Pretty impressive for such a short flight time,” he said as two of the drones did figure eights. “They are really motivated.”
On one side of the training site, the two Ukrainian military officers worked to hover the drone at higher altitudes. Drones are already used by both sides in the war to locate enemy forces and relay targeting data to artillery batteries. Although small planes are difficult to shoot down, their signals can be jammed and even traced back to the drone operator, who would then be the new target.
“If they find us, they shoot us,” said one of the men, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “We had to pack up and run.”
The Lemur, which navigates by laser-based lidar rather than satellite-based GPS, is less hackable.
Resnick, as a teenager, developed the Lemur after the 2017 Mandalay Bay shootings that killed 60 people in his hometown of Las Vegas. He said he envisioned a device that SWAT teams could use to reach shooters and hostages in dangerous environments.
The drone’s communication system allows users to negotiate with bad guys or reassure victims.
Lemur quadcopters had proved useful to rescuers during the collapse of the Champlain Towers condominium building in Surfside, Florida, last year.
Rescuers flew the devices into the wreckage when there was still a risk of a second adjacent tower collapsing, according to Byron Evetts, a structural specialist who worked at the scene of the disaster. The drone allowed them to monitor individual cracks for any signs of shifting or movement.
And in combat situations, the drone’s range can be invaluable allowing the operator to stay thousands of feet away.
As the drones passed over Polish afternoon skies, Phil Anderson, the Washington-based consultant who launched the Ukraine Freedom Alliance, fielded calls for further sourcing efforts.
“Well, I can’t thank you enough,” he said, ending a conversation with an executive who was willing to loan a Falcon 900 aircraft to transport over 5,000 pounds of combat trauma aid and other supplies collected by the Special Forces community. around Fort Bragg, NC, and other locations.
Once the materials arrive in Poland, the challenge is to find Ukrainians to guard them. In the morning, driving from Warsaw, the Polish capital, Anderson had received a call from a medical group that had traveled to Ukraine with a team of doctors, equipment and an ambulance, but nowhere to deploy.
Anderson turned to his main Ukrainian partner, a well-connected ex-military pilot who operates his own airline company. After an hour, the man approached Anderson with good news. He had called a member of the Ukrainian parliament, who had in turn contacted the Minister of Health.
After 15 hours of practice, the drone trainers started packing their planes. The drones were on their way to Warsaw, and the former military pilot would take them to Ukraine.
“It’s one of the most black and white wars I can remember,” Resnick said. “I think it’s just a moral obligation to support them.”