LONDON — Ukrainian soldiers have received hundreds of drones, gifted to them by Australia, to capture surveillance video crucial for preparing missions to retake ground from Russian forces.
The data comes from GoPro cameras strung from holes punched into disposable cardboard drones.
This cheap method of scoping out targets is made possible by SYPAQ’s Corvo Precision Payload Delivery System, which can travel more than 100 kilometers, carry three kilograms of payload, and land within about two meters of its intended landing spot.
“It’s actually designed for a blood bag,” explained Michael Partridge, SYPAQ’s general manager.
SYPAQ created the Corvo Precision Payload Delivery System in 2018, in response to an innovation challenge from the Australian Army to build a low-observable, low-cost drone to deliver resupply goods to remote operators.
The company decided to go with cardboard, which is both cheap and doesn’t catch the attention of enemy radar systems.
The drone’s design features a two-meter wingspan with minimal avionics and a motor module, and a payload bay with a cover that lifts up so the receiver can retrieve the blood bag, repair part, ammunition, radio or whatever else was sent their way.
The drone, which starts out as a flat sheet of cardboard and folds up to take its shape, can then be discarded in the field.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on SYPAQ and the Australian Defence Force’s testing and development of the aircraft. But then two years later, “along came the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and the Australian government was looking for something they could gift, and they wanted something that was ready to go and didn’t have long lead times,” Partridge said.
“They knew of this because we’ve codeveloped it with them, so we struck a deal and we’ve delivered just over 600 vehicles into Ukraine, and they’re using them quite well,” he added.
The company, based in Melbourne, says there are potential customers in the Middle East that want to buy the Corvo PPDS as a cheap test asset for carrying sensors. Similarly, Australian forces have used it as a dummy for radar system performance checks and calibration.
But Partridge said the Ukrainians’ heavy use of the drone for more complex missions has provided significant feedback that the company us using to improve the mission planning system, user interface and ground control station for the whole family of Corvo drones.
“The Ukrainians are using it certain ways. The most effective way we’re hearing about is they’re literally cutting holes in the bottom and putting GoPros on 10-second timers” to film a short clip when the unmanned systems reach the turnaround point that’s pre-programmed into their GPS. This helps make the drones even harder to detect, as there’s no datalink streaming the video back or receiving navigation instructions.
“They’ve got active imagery that’s 30 minutes old, for a very cost-effective way of doing that,” Partridge said.
The filming tactics require more precise mission planning, however, with Ukrainian officials sending feature requests directly to the manufacturer.
While elements of the control software may change as a result, the cardboard construction is here to stay, Partridge said.
“The cardboard is a cost driver, so that’s exactly what it does, but it also does a very, very good job of enabling the platform. So when you talk about improvements, it’s going to be really hard to find something at a [lower cost-point] that still works,” he said, adding that the cardboard material can even fly in light rain and in humid maritime environments without collapsing.
Three weeks ago, the company released a heavy-lift version that has a greater wingspan and carries six kilograms. And two weeks ago, the company unveiled quadcopter variants that resemble the Chinese-made DJI drones that the U.S. and Australia have banned from their militaries.
SYPAQ is working with United Kingdom-based Tanglewood Group to make the drones available on the market in Europe and the Middle East.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.