The world’s leading consumer drone maker DJI has been embroiled in the Ukraine-Russia war for months now. The Ukrainian Ground Forces use the DJI Mavic 3 and the larger DJI Matrice series for surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
According to the Ukrainian drone operator who fought in the battle of Lysychansk in the Donbass region, almost everyone on the front lines depends on these drones, including civilians.
“They are bought by friends, relatives, volunteers, and then become the eyes of the frontline units,” Alex said. “The situation can change in 10 minutes, and you have to see what the enemy is doing right away.”
And even though Russian forces attempted to jam electronic signals in the Donbass region, it did not disrupt the ability of these DJI drones to be their eyes in the sky.
Ukrainian forces using long-range artillery navigation also use DJI drones. A soldier named Abdulla said WSJ that they use these drones a lot. This helps them keep their distance from the Russians undetected.
“They don’t know where we are,” Abdulla said.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, DJI is not theirs to monopolize. So, of course, the Russian military has access to these commercially available drones. In fact, the Russians use them too.
The Russian Embassy in China posted a now-deleted comment on Chinese social media platform, Weibo, praising DJI and its capabilities in “modern warfare.” The post quoted Russian Army General Yuri Baluyevsky as saying DJI drones were instrumental in keeping their troops on their toes as they made their way to Ukraine’s western and southern borders. Army General Baluyevsky added that DJI drones are effective because of their “extreme precision”.
“The Mavic quadcopter drone manufactured by the Chinese DJI has become a true symbol of modern warfare,” the Russian general said.
Then, as the Russians present the “technical advances” of their forces, the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov called out DJI for allowing Russians to buy their devices. According to Fedorov, “Russian troops [have] already killed 100 Ukrainian children” using DJI drones.
“Are you sure you want to be a partner in these murders?” Block your products that help Russia kill Ukrainians!
In response, DJI released an official statement stressing that their drones are designed for “civilian use and do not meet military specifications”.
“The visibility given to my AeroScope and future remote identification requirements is one more reason why their use for military missions is inappropriate.”
According to DJI, their AeroScope system has a built-in data collection feature in their drones that cannot be turned off. However, DJI cannot obtain user information and flight data “unless the user actively submits it to us”.
“We do not have the ability to identify and verify a user’s location, and therefore we do not hold the data you requested.”
DJI has also refuted claims that their products are also used to “navigate missiles” during war.
DJI founder and CEO Frank Wang said it was “complete nonsense”, during an interview with Chinese state website Guancha.
— DJI (@DJIGlobal) March 16, 2022
“DJI’s civilian drones are unable to directly guide missiles, and Russia does not need to rely on DJI to locate drone operators,” the company said.
As governments and consumers continued to castigate DJI for its association with Russia, MediaMarkt, Europe’s largest consumer electronics retailer, stopped selling DJI drones in its stores. When asked why they removed DJI products, the store replied that it was for various reasons. However, they did not specify whether the Russian affiliation was among them.
DJI’s removal from retail shelves was “a clear signal for the values which have the highest priority for us and which we see being unacceptably attacked by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine”, said the society.
If that’s not enough, the US Treasury Department has also blacklisted DJI along with intelligence firms like Megvii and SenseTime over an alleged association of their products with surveillance of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang.
In an interview with Ukrainian soldier Volodymyr Demchenko, he shared how they use DJI drones; they are also attacked simultaneously as if their locations were also leaked to the Russian military.
“We use Chinese drones, and the Chinese give the Russians a program that can search us,” he told CNN. “The Russians see where we start and where we land and once it happened to us we were attacked like straight away. The drone was landing and the next one like in 30 seconds a mine was really close, at 30 meters away.
On the other hand, DJI deny these “correlations” and said there are issues with their AeroScope drone detection platform (a drone that essentially detects other drones) in Ukraine, citing poor internet connection as a possible reason for these events.
“We are aware of the issues with some AeroScope units in Ukraine; they may be connected to a prolonged loss of power/internet. But there is no deliberate action to downgrade AeroScope there.