The Dubious Prospects for Cargo-Delivery Drones in Ukraine
As Russian forces besieged Mariupol in recent months, some observers called for using drones to resupply Ukrainian forces and deliver humanitarian aid.
I understand the appeal of humanitarian delivery-by-drone as well as anybody. In 2014, I founded and led an effort to swarm cargo into besieged parts of Syria. Later, I went on to start a successful drone-software development team at the Defense Innovation Unit, where I continued to work closely with the drone industry. On that basis, numerous well-meaning individuals have reached out to me for advice on delivering cargo by drone in Ukraine.
The perspective I offer these entrepreneurs is cold but rooted in hard-won wisdom: Delivery-by-drone is not ready to scale beyond limited experimentation in warzones. Building a scalable delivery paradigm is orders of magnitude more difficult than most people realize. Limited drone deliveries might hold symbolic value, provide valuable learning, and occasionally meet legitimate needs, but are unlikely to meaningfully impact Ukrainian logistical requirements.
Cargo-delivery drones will play an increasing role in future conflicts, but governments with military-grade capabilities will probably become the dominant actors. Unfortunately, the United States and its allies have not invested in the necessary technologies and organizational capacities. Rather than look to hobbyists with consumer drones to fill the gap, U.S. and allied military forces should take the lesson and make long-term investments in last-mile battlefield logistics capabilities.
Calls for Cargo-Delivery Drones in Ukraine
A frenzy of drone experimentation is already underway in Ukraine. Faine Greenwood has collected more than 400 references to drone usage in Ukraine, primarily for surveillance, journalism, targeting, and documentation. Ukrainian forces have also demonstrated the ability to use small drones to drop grenades and other small explosives on Russian troops — a use case that, technologically speaking, is almost identical to airdropping aid.
The brutal Russian siege of Mariupol in March led to a wave of interest in using drones for cargo delivery. In a March 11 tweet thread, Josh Rogin wrote, “Time to send large unmanned aircraft with humanitarian aid to Ukrainian cities under siege.” He had previously issued similar calls for drone airdrops at the height of the Syrian civil war. Rogin’s tweets provoked criticism from experts who insisted that “large unmanned aircraft” capable of cargo delivery don’t actually exist. Gary Mortimer, founder and editor of sUAS News, responded by writing that drone technology is not ready for wartime, but noted that market-leading drone companies could help deliver medical supplies in a post-war era. Humanitarian-aid experts also expressed concern about well-meaning outsiders with unproven technology creating risks borne by those on the ground. Undeterred, advocates like drone consultant Robert Garbett continue to insist that “commercial drones could be the answer to Ukraine’s logistics nightmare.”
Some Western organizations are actively bringing cargo-drone capabilities to Ukraine. Connecticut-based Aquiline Drones reportedly sent 40 Spartacus Hurricane drones to assist with search-and-rescue operations and cargo delivery. U.S.-based Revived Soldiers Ukraine ordered almost 200 drones from Canadian drone-services provider Draganfly. Each can carry 15 kilograms of cargo in temperature-controlled storage. The British government is reportedly donating T150 quadcopters. However well-intended, these efforts overlook the difficulty of building an organization capable of sustaining airlift operations in proximity to a ruthless adversary.
My Delivery-by-Drone Experience
My own interest in Syrian sieges began in 2014. As an active-duty C-17 pilot, my job entailed flying cargo and personnel into conflict zones. I was also an Arabic-speaking Middle East specialist studying the civil war. When the Syrian government began starving out entire neighborhoods, the United States found itself unable to respond. It could not airdrop supplies from large cargo aircraft without first taking out Syria’s air defense system. I was irate that in the 21st century, despite possessing “global strike” capabilities, the United States lacked the ability to guarantee “global delivery.” As I pondered solutions, I landed on the idea of using large numbers of small drones to build a bridge into besieged areas. Small drones were cheap, could evade Syrian air defenses, and could potentially reach Aleppo from Turkey.
I spent the next year and a half building a nonprofit to execute the vision. We called our effort the Syria Airlift Project. Our all-volunteer team prototyped and demonstrated fixed-wing drones that could deliver one-kilogram packages at roundtrip ranges of 100 kilometers. If we could scale to running multiple launch teams continuously, we could deliver hundreds of kilograms per day. We demonstrated the capability at a major event in California. Unfortunately, we hit insurmountable challenges and dissolved the organization before we could attempt any deliveries in Syria.
Trying to build a wartime delivery-by-drone paradigm was the most grueling and humbling experience of my life. We originally hoped to feed trapped populations but quickly learned the technology wasn’t ready — we would be lucky to deliver a kilogram or two at a time, which shifted us towards medical supply deliveries.
We also thought a humanitarian drone campaign might put political pressure on the Syrian regime. I had visions of thousands of refugees in Turkey packing food, sewing parachutes, and launching drone after drone into besieged Syria. My thinking was rooted in the writings of Gene Sharp, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, and other scholars and practitioners of nonviolence, who recognized that nonviolent humanitarian action could create political effects without escalating military risk. Over time, however, it became clear that the Syrian regime was shameless. A nonviolent movement was unlikely to shift the behavior of a regime that dropped barrel bombs in population centers and launched chemical attacks on its own people.
By the end, we pursued a more modest goal: to drop a single package on a hospital rooftop in Aleppo. If we could do that, we would at least demonstrate the viability of humanitarian drone deliveries. Even that goal proved a bridge too far.
The Syria Airlift Project failed for many reasons. Our all-volunteer team lacked a sustainable business model. We struggled to obtain the reliability we needed from emerging drone technology. As the Syrian war grew more complex and the self-proclaimed Islamic State rampaged across Syria, stakeholder willingness to support our effort evaporated. Finally, and most importantly, the value of delivery-by-drone remained uncertain. Syrians and international aid organizations were divided on whether the value of delivering small packages justified the risks. I still do not know if the Syria Airlift Project was a brilliant idea or a terrible one. I detail its rise and fall in my book Eating Glass: The Inner Journey Through Failure and Renewal.
After we dissolved our nonprofit, Keith Dear, a Royal Air Force officer and former volunteer, founded the not-for-profit Airbridge Aviation to continue pursuing our vision. Rather than build his own small drones, he proposed contracting with a commercial drone operator. Thanks to his direct influence, General Atomics floated the idea of a cargo-delivering variant of the military-grade Predator drone called the Angel One. Airbridge’s drones could carry heavier payloads at greater ranges, but they were also expensive: I worried that a single crash or shootdown would have sent costs skyrocketing. Despite finding support within the governments of the United Kingdom, the United States, France, and various aid agencies, Airbridge was unable to attempt a Syria airlift. Dear believes an airlift could have been successful and continues to actively develop proposals for Ukraine.
What I Learned
Sustained airlift with drones is far harder than most advocates think, even in a peaceful environment. Dozens of companies have been trying for years. Most no longer exist, only exist on paper, or are stuck in endless prototyping without showing real value.
A few companies are doing well, but they’ve been at it for years, iteratively developing and refining their technology and processes in conjunction with on-the-ground partners. Zipline has built a delivery paradigm much like what I envisioned, but it benefits from unique relationships with governments like Rwanda’s that are difficult to replicate. The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Innovation Unit ran successful experiments with Zipline and Volansi to deliver medical supplies in simulated combat environments, but there is no way to simply transplant these experienced companies into a country at war like Ukraine. Their technology is also not designed to be survivable against an enemy like Russia.
War multiplies the complexity of delivery-by-drone. Aid recipients can be hard to access directly. Information from war zones is ambiguous, contradictory, and hard to interpret. It is difficult and sometimes impossible to determine the actual conditions in besieged areas, the value of drone deliveries, and the hazards. Launch crews face severe risk from artillery or missile strikes, especially since cargo drones typically require launch infrastructure like catapults or runways. A sustained airlift would necessitate repeated flights over the same geographic areas, making cargo drones more vulnerable than the smaller intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones widely used throughout Ukraine. Given the cost of most cargo drones, delivery costs would be highly sensitive to even modest aircraft losses.
A small, determined group of Ukrainians can undoubtedly execute one-off delivery flights. Likely, some already are. Ukrainian forces have proven to be masters at information warfare, and delivery-by-drone flights could provide symbolic value. In some cases, they might even deliver life-saving supplies like medicine and insulin. Battlefield experimentation could also yield useful lessons to drive further innovation.
However, advocates of delivery-by-drone should set realistic expectations. Scaling beyond limited experimentation to sustain besieged populations is unlikely in today’s world. Cargo drone technology is still immature, and successfully executing a large-scale airlift will require an organization with deep expertise in drone technology, flight operations, logistics, and warfare. It is telling that although the Ukrainians reportedly operate thousands of small drones, Faine Greenwood has not documented a single example of delivery-by-drone in the 400-plus instances she has scraped from open sources.
Challenges to Overcome
I have been an innovator long enough to know that a subset of my readers will resolve to prove me wrong. I also know that one of them just might succeed where I failed. If they do, I will be the first to congratulate them. In that spirit, I offer some considerations to help them get started.
Anyone hoping to meaningfully address logistics needs with delivery-by-drone must solve an interrelated series of wicked problems. Each is surmountable but none is easy.
Know Their Goal. If their goal is to meet humanitarian needs, they must deliver the right kinds of cargo in sufficient quantities to the right people. Alternatively, they might merely wish to create political effects. Perhaps a large-scale delivery-by-drone campaign can inspire hope, create a meaningful way for Ukrainians and outsiders to participate in doing good, and help delegitimize and shame Putin’s regime for using siege tactics. In this case, actual cargo delivered may be less important than other metrics, but the organization still needs some way to assess its political impact — and evaluate whether this impact outweighs the risks.
Validate That Delivery-by-Drone Makes Sense. Small drones can only deliver limited cargo (say, up to 15 kilograms). Larger drones can carry more but are exponentially more expensive, are more likely to be shot down, and introduce greater consequences if they crash. A delivery organization must validate use cases in which such small amounts of aid make sense. It must determine how many flights it can achieve, and what total volume of aid it can deliver. Even besieged areas are often porous, with tons of smuggled goods passing in. To make practical and economic sense, drones must somehow show superior value to these alternative means of delivery.
Choose a Delivery Technology. Organizations face a combinatorial explosion of technologies, including different drone sizes, different morphologies (quadcopters, hexacopters, fixed-wing, vertical take-off and landing, gliders dropped from cargo planes, rockets, unguided balloons, guided dirigibles, guided military parachute systems, etc.), power sources (batteries versus gas), and more. As organizations weigh these alternatives, they must consider vehicle cost, survivability, payload capability, maintenance costs, supply chain issues, and more.
Reduce Cost per Kilogram. If an organization’s goal is to meet humanitarian needs (and not just take symbolic action), this is a key metric. It provides a quantifiable way to compare a delivery-by-drone paradigm to alternatives. Driving this number down is a wicked optimization problem: It is difficult to achieve a number that looks appealing.
Determine Where to Launch. Small drones generally have a range of tens to hundreds of kilometers, which necessitates launching from within Ukraine, neighboring countries, or the sea. Launching from within Ukraine would introduce physical danger and require a strong on-the-ground presence. Launching from neighboring countries would introduce political and legal risks that may be insurmountable. By allowing flight operations into Ukraine, these countries would risk military escalation with Russia. Sea-based launch crews would be highly vulnerable.
Build an Organization. To operate at scale, an organization must build and maintain drones, conduct flight operations, train pilots, communicate with aid recipients, manage supply chains, and run internal operations. Building an entirely new organization is hard and takes time. Partnering with an existing organization would solve that problem, but many companies and nonprofits will not tolerate the risks associated with operating in a warzone.
Achieve Reliability at Scale. To operate at scale, an organization must handle even small drones with the same rigorous safety discipline that manned aviation employs. This means extensive training, rigorous checklists, careful flight planning, regular inspections, maintenance, and robust standard operating procedures. The organization must train numerous teams that can operate drones in austere conditions, under military threat, and in a variety of weather conditions, with an extremely high success rate. They might need to operate without datalinks for at least portions of their flights.
Find Donors and Partners. These organizations must be willing to tolerate high levels of legal and reputational risk. Even a Ukraine-based organization would likely need support from international organizations, but war creates huge liability concerns. Possible risks include inadvertent violations of host-nation export-control laws, accusations of aiding and abetting armed groups, the repurposing of humanitarian drones as weapons, the killing or capture of launch crews, aid falling into the wrong hands, drone collisions with airliners, crashes injuring or killing civilians, Russian forces targeting aid recipients, or Russian forces capturing drones and using them for their own purposes. Insurance is unlikely to cover delivery-by-drone activities in a warzone.
Mitigate Risks. Organizations must make the risk level acceptable to themselves, their recipients, and their partners. Drone operators face a possible “moral hazard” problem, in which their actions create risks for others. Responsible operators must ensure all stakeholders are comfortable with the range of risks.
Develop Infrastructure for Aid Receipt. One of the greatest challenges delivery-by-drone operators face in both peacetime and wartime is ensuring that intended recipients — and only intended recipients — receive the delivery. This requires a combination of technology (vertical take-off and landing aircraft, winches, precision airdrops, etc.) and processes (identifying needs, communicating with intended recipients before/during/after deliveries, preparing landing zones, etc.). Drone operators face an asymmetric information problem, in which they may need to rely on self-interested parties in besieged areas for information.
Develop a Sustainable Business Model. The economic, legal, and practical challenges make it difficult to do this. Scaling delivery is manpower-intensive, which introduces a need to pay high labor costs or rely on volunteers who are prone to burnout. Recipients in wartime sieges likely won’t be able to pay for aid, but a donation-based system may be unsustainable.
Build an International Logistics Network. Organizations would need a logistics system capable of getting drones, parts, and batteries or fuel into an active warzone. Ukrainians have proven adept at acquiring consumer-grade drones, but the challenges will multiply with heavier, more expensive, and more specialized drone hardware.
Survive Against a Determined Adversary. I have heard some U.S. soldiers mutter a bleak mantra when discussing adversaries like Russia: “If you emit, you die.” Drones emit a wide range of signals, so turning on a datalink might be a death sentence for operators. The Russians have proven adept at bombarding electromagnetic emissions with artillery, forcing operators of small drones to stay light and mobile. Quadcopters and hexacopters would need to operate close to drop zones, where the enemy presence is strong, while fixed-wing drones often require launch and recovery infrastructure that takes considerable time to set up and tear down.
The Future of Delivery-by-Drone
Drone technology has evolved considerably since I launched my effort in 2014. The sheer number of small drones employed in Ukraine dwarfs the limited experimentation in Syria at that time. With that said, large-scale delivery-by-drone in conflict zones still remains over the horizon.
Entrepreneurial citizens of war zones — to include Ukraine — will undoubtedly continue using small drones for niche use cases. However, states will remain the primary actors capable of sustained airlift in conflict zones. Military forces will likely be the only organizations with the capacity, training, and experience to operate at scale.
The real leap in wartime delivery-by-drone will likely come when military forces acquire better standoff cargo-delivery capabilities. The Air Force is currently acquiring Silent Arrow gliders launchable from cargo aircraft. The Defense Department will also increasingly rely on large unmanned or optionally manned drones like K-Max helicopters in more permissive environments. The Army has experimented with a Joint Tactical Aerial Resupply Vehicle and the Marine Corps with the Tactical Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System. The Air Force has even considered worldwide cargo delivery by rocket. Unfortunately, as with most new forms of technology, the department’s experimentation with delivery-by-drone technology rarely extends beyond research and development projects. The valley of death is real.
As the commercial drone industry matures, large aid organizations may also acquire some of these technologies. Unfortunately, this appears to be a ways off. Commercial delivery-by-drone services require a supportive regulatory environment, which has been painfully slow to develop — driving many delivery-by-drone companies out of the United States. Until drone operators can regularly operate beyond visual line of sight, enabling a large-scale commercial drone industry to flourish, delivery-by-drone will remain an experimental novelty.
The fact that we are looking to drone hobbyists with off-the-shelf drones to meet last-mile logistics needs is an indictment of military unpreparedness. Despite my sober assessment, I still believe we can create a global delivery paradigm that guarantees access to any location on the planet. Drones will likely play a role in this, but we will get what we pay for. The horrific sieges in Syria and Ukraine should motivate Western countries to make long-term investments in a new generation of last-mile delivery capabilities.
Lt. Col Mark D. Jacobsen is a Professor of Strategy and Security Studies at the U.S. Air Force’s School of Advanced Air & Space Studies (SAASS). You can find more of his writing at www.markdjacobsen.com. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Image: Wikimedia Commons