World-leading consumer drone manufacturer DJI has been involved in the Ukraine-Russia war for months now. Ukrainian Ground Forces are using 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 for Lysychansk in the Donbas region, almost everyone on the front lines is reliant on these drones., including civilians.
“The get bought by friends, by relatives, by volunteers—and then become the eyes of the front line units,” said Alex. “The situation can change in 10 minutes, and you need to see what the enemy is doing right away.”
And even though Russian forces were trying to jam the electronic signals in the Donbas area, it didn’t disrupt the ability of these DJI drones to be their eyes in the sky.
Ukrainian forces employing long-range artillery navigation also use DJI drones. A soldier named Abdulla told WSJ that they use these drones a lot. It helps them keep their distance from the Russians without being detected.
“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 are using them, too.
The Russian Embassy in China posted a now-deleted comment on the Chinese social media platform, Weibo, praising DJI and its capabilities in “modern warfare.” The post cited Russian Army General Yuri Baluyevsky saying DJI drones’ have been instrumental in keeping their troops on their toes as they push towards Ukraine’s Western and Southern borders. Army General Baluyevsky added that DJI drones are efficient because of their “pinpoint accuracy.”
“The Mavic quadcopter drone made by China’s DJI has become a true symbol of modern warfare,” said the Russian general.
Then, as the Russians are showcasing the “technical advancements” of their forces, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine and Minister of Digital Transformation of Ukraine Mykhailo Fedorov called out DJI for allowing Russians to purchase their devices. According to Fedorov, “Russian troops [have] already killed 100 Ukrainian children” while using DJI drones.
“Are you sure you want to be a partner in these murders? Block your products that are helping Russia to kill Ukrainians!”
In response, DJI released an official statement emphasizing that their drones are made for “civilian use and do not meet military specifications.”
“The visibility given my AeroScope and future Remote ID requirements is one more reason why using them for military missions is inappropriate.”
According to DJI, their AeroScope system has a built-in data-gathering functionality in their drones that cannot be turned off. However, DJI cannot obtain user information and flight data “unless 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 have requested.”
DJI also refuted the claims that their products are also being used to “navigate missiles” in the war.
DJI Founder and CEO Frank Wang said this was “complete nonsense,” during an interview with the Chinese state website, Guancha.
— DJI (@DJIGlobal) March 16, 2022
“DJI’s civilian drones are unable to directly guide missiles, and Russia doesn’t need to rely on DJI to trace the locations of drone operators,” the company was quoted as saying.
As governments and consumers continued to lambast DJI for their association with Russia, MediaMarkt, Europe’s largest consumer electronics retailer, stopped selling DJI drones in their stores. When asked why they pulled out DJI products, the store said they were for various reasons. However, they did not specify if the Russian-affiliation is one of them.
DJI’s removal from retail shelves was “a clear signal for the values that have the highest priority for us and which we see being attacked in an unacceptable way by Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine,” the company said.
If that’s not bad enough, the US Treasury Department also blacklisted DJI together with intelligence firms like Megvii and SenseTime because of an alleged association of their products for Muslim minority surveillance in Xinjiang.
In an interview with Ukrainian soldier Volodymyr Demchenko, he shared how when they use DJI drones; they also get attacked simultaneously as if their locations are also being disclosed to the Russian army.
“We are using Chinese drones, and the Chinese give Russians a program that can search us,” he told CNN. “Russians see from where we are starting and where we are landing and once it happened to us, we were attacked like right away. The drone was landing and the next, like in 30 seconds, a mine was like really close, like 30 meters away.”
On the other hand, DJI denies these “correlations” and said that there are existing problems with their AeroScope drone detection platform(A drone that detects other drones basically) in Ukraine, citing bad internet connection as a possible reason for these events.
“We are aware of problems with some AeroScope units in Ukraine; they may be connected to prolonged loss of power/internet. But there is no deliberate action to downgrade AeroScope there.”