Death from above, printed at home: Ukrainians deploy DIY weapons against Russian troops

2022-08-02 13:57:51 By : Ms. Yan Liu

KYIV — If any of them survived, they probably regret leaving the sunroof open.

The three Russian soldiers, filmed from a weaponized Ukrainian drone from above, scramble into what looked like a worn-down sedan somewhere near the city of Kharkiv. Their position had already been struck earlier by another drone and they were trying to evacuate an injured comrade. Just then, a small metal projectile about the size of a soda can descends on them. It has been outfitted with an incongruous white fin. It sails through the air, slipping right through the aperture in the car’s roof, detonating on impact. One soldier is still able-bodied enough to sprint away, although the same can’t be said for his co-passengers. As smoke billows from the top, the vehicle careers out of control, grinding to a stop.

The drone’s camera footage shows a Russian soldier through the sunroof. Another is crawling on the ground. Though the concussive force of the blast didn’t kill these men instantly, the numerous lacerations caused by the mortar’s shrapnel may yet prove deadly.

“We have thousands of volunteers in Ukraine hoping to say ‘hi’ to Russian occupiers in this way,” Yuri Vlasyuk said admiringly of his own team’s work. The soft-spoken 46-year-old explained to Yahoo News at a cafe in Kyiv that the white fin on the bomb, which gave it enough aerodynamic stability to perfectly meet its target, was 3D-printed by a Ukrainian civilian at home. Although it was dropped by an operator of Ukraine’s 92 Mechanized Brigade, the manufacturer received his own digital trophy.

“The volunteers that print these for the drones get a video showing them being put to good use,” Vlasyuk said with a grin. He then pulled up other videos posted to Facebook and Twitter showing grenades and mortars with 3D-printed fins hitting columns of unsuspecting Russian troops, as well as ones displaying Ukrainian hands packing their metal tubes with nails.

Vlasyuk self-effacingly described himself as a “just a guy who knows some cool people.” In reality, his cohort is an organic network of tinkerers — engineers, electricians, programmers and 3D printers — who’ve been helping their military wage a grassroots campaign against Russian invaders.

Some of the yield of their collaborative activity has wound up arming Aerorozvidka, the innovative Ukrainian drone warfare and reconnaissance unit founded in 2014 and now works cheek-by-jowl with the Ukrainian army. Its fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles, remote-operated birds of prey, silently stalks Russian tanks at night and played a major role in halting an invading convoy that snaked toward Kyiv at the start of the war.

Aerorozvidka has seen an incredible return on investment. A $10,000 drone purchasable on Amazon can drop a $10 grenade from above and destroy a modern Russian tank worth millions. When the group needed someone with a background in machine learning, they reached out to Vlasyuk, a central figure in the Ukrainian arm of the “maker movement,” an international subculture of tinkerers, artisans and hobbyists.

Started in San Francisco in 2007, the movement brings together participants with a variety of technical skills to build, modify and experiment. The events rapidly expanded across the United States and were seen as an effective way to promote the adoption of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills among young people. A “Maker Faire” was even held at the White House in 2014.

In 2015, a year after Russia’s illegal seizure of Crimea, Vlasyuk, a reseller of Apple computers, hosted a series of maker events in Kyiv after seeing what others in their cohort were doing in foreign cities. They rapidly grew in popularity and by 2018, his events had 250 makers and over 7,000 attendees.

Vlasyuk sees his events as a way of introducing people of different backgrounds to one another over a common interest. “We wanted to get people interested in physical engineering, and not just programming.” He had a paternal motive too. “It was something for me and my son to do together that wasn't sitting on his iPad, playing computer games or watching videos on YouTube,” he said.

Initially Vlasyuk didn’t think his Maker Faire would be a success. “I was happy to just lose a small amount of money,” he said. But it caught the eye of Intel, the California-based semiconductor giant that operated a plant in Kyiv. Before long, Vlasyuk had an American corporate partner.

Ukraine has a strong engineering heritage.

The Antonov Design Bureau factory in Kyiv built the world's largest aircraft, the Mriya cargo plane, which was destroyed during the battle for Hostomel air base at the start of the war. The Kharkiv Tractor Plant built tens of thousands of armored vehicles for the Soviet Union. “Igor Sikorsky was Ukrainian!” Vlasyuk proclaimed, referring to the Kyiv-born aviator who founded an eponymous aircraft manufacturing company now owned by Lockheed Martin.

Normalcy for every Ukrainian ended Feb. 24, the day the Russians came. Almost immediately Vlasyuk started getting requests for electro welding machines, 3D printers and other DIY tools as the entirety of Ukrainian society rallied to defend the country. Among the first crowdsourced defenses were “Czech hedgehogs,” antitank barriers that became ubiquitous in Kyiv throughout the siege and consisted of metal girders welded together in crosshatch fashion.

In Closer, one of Kyiv’s largest nightclubs built inside a converted ribbon factory, makers from Hacklab — another Kyiv-based collective of tinkerers — welded tire spikes on the dance floor. The spikes are hollow such that when they puncture a tire, it deflates instantly rather than slowly as it would with a solid object puncturing it. Some of the air raid sirens that now sound several times a day were also produced there. In Odessa, they started producing fuel-efficient mobile heaters, which double as stoves, to keep soldiers at the front warm and fed.

“They were far more efficient than just an oil drum filled with wood,” Vlasyuk said, showing Yahoo News a picture of a man standing proudly in front three rows of what look like metal coffee grinders.

Vlasyuk’s pop-up corps of engineers soon became a veritable RadioShack. They made power banks from dozens of electronic cigarettes that could be used to charge night-vision goggles. One model of what he called a “steampunk” generator, of which only one was ever made, has mains and USB drives intended for car auto cigarette lighters, all encased in a wooden box once used for storing ammunition.

Volunteers even manufactured accumulators, rechargeable batteries, for the NLAW antitank missiles supplied by the United Kingdom and other Western countries. Ukraine is now a graveyard for hundreds of Russian tanks. “Some of these weapons had been in storage for a while and the accumulators didn’t work that well,” Vlasyuk said. “But we couldn’t afford to not be able to use the NLAWs, so we made our own batteries for them.”

With nearly 1 million men under arms, and conscription in place for every military-age male, virtually everyone in Ukraine has a family member or a friend in the armed forces. When the war started, one of Vlasyuk’s makers had just finished 3D-printing a giant gold Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for a new (and now unopened) casino in Odessa.

The 3D printer, whom Vlasyuk asked Yahoo News not to identify, currently makes rubber suspension bushes for Humvees, critical components for shock absorption. “He can print in a few minutes parts that would take weeks to arrive from Europe or America,” Vlasyuk said.

The widespread adoption of this tech workaround could massively simplify Ukraine’s logistics, allowing the military to more easily maintain the disparate selection of armored vehicles that Ukraine’s Western partners have supplied. The United States has sent Ukraine hundreds of loitering munitions, from Switchblade 300s to the bespoke Phoenix Ghost. These quantities, however, aren’t sufficient for waging a multifront war, especially if the anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive for Kherson, the strategically vital southern city under Russian occupation, is to prove successful. Vlasyuk’s network has begun manufacturing its own homemade kamikaze drones. “We have more than 100 projects ongoing,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s been trying to keep his own Apple resale business afloat. It hasn’t been easy. As someone who relies heavily on imported goods priced in dollars, he has seen his income suffer from an unfavorable exchange rate and the suspension of air and sea import routes. Another burden has been living without his family for six months; Vlasyuk’s wife and his two boys moved to Germany on Feb. 28, four days after the war started. The older one is 14 and is going through an “awkward” teenage phase; he might benefit from the constant presence of a father. The younger one is 9 and doing well in school; he already speaks German fluently. As for his wife, Vlasyuk said, “We do video calls, but it’s not the same.”

After the war, Vlasyuk hopes to work with Ukrainian veterans, introduce them to his other maker Faire contacts and help them deal with posttraumatic stress disorder by giving them new practical skills.

“There will be a lot of veterans,” he said.

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