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Everyone Wants Ukraine’s Battlefield Data

Jul 24, 2023 2:00 AM

Everyone Wants Ukraine’s Battlefield Data

Global companies are offering free products to get access to live combat data. The Ukrainian government wants to keep this resource for its own emerging defense industry.

Soldier holding a drone with blue and yellow overlays

Photograph: Getty Images

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Wearing a baseball cap and thick, black-rimmed glasses, Cameron Chell is part defense contractor, part tech executive. His company, Draganfly, used to mainly work with emergency services in North America, selling drones and the accompanying software that could deliver medical equipment, or film traffic accidents from above. But since last February, the Canadian has pivoted his business to cater to a market more than 8,000 miles away: Ukraine.

Now, there are 40 Draganfly drones in Ukraine, repurposed for search-and-rescue missions in bombed-out buildings, landmine detection, and other military tasks that Chell declines to detail. The company has demonstrated its tech to the Ukrainian Air Force, the Ministry of Defence, as well as President Volodomyr Zelenskyy’s fundraising initiative, United24. “There isn't a branch of the government we haven’t worked with or interacted with in some way.” Sometimes he gets texts from Ukrainian contacts, saying a friend of a friend needs a drone for their unit, can he help? Draganfly obliges, of course, for a discounted fee.

Since Russia invaded, military aid has been flowing into Ukraine. The US has committed $39 billion since the war started, the UK $37.3 billion, and the EU $12 billion. Chell and his company are part of a scramble of international tech companies rushing into the country to try and benefit. Business has been so good, he’s set up a field office in Ukraine with four full-time employees. But Draganfly is operating in Ukraine not just to support the cause or to collect the cash. It’s also come for the data.

The war in Ukraine presents an unprecedented opportunity for military tech companies. The scale of the fighting and the sheer number of weapons systems and high-tech sensors deployed have created a vast amount of data about how battles are fought and how people and machines behave under fire. For businesses that want to build the next generation of weapons, or train systems that will be useful in future conflicts, that is a resource of incalculable value.

“Everybody could have the same AI engine. The only differentiator now is how good are the data inputs that you have,” says Chell. “Making sure that it's your sensors collecting that data, and feeding it into your software, is absolutely important. It’s more important than ever to be present.”

There is an old, much derided, cliché that data is the “new oil”—not only because of its cash value, but because of how it will fuel so much of the future economy. Just as large language models, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, are trained on hundreds of billions of words, AI products in the defense world also have to be fed vast amounts of data. A company selling drones that can autonomously identify tanks, for example, needs to train its software on huge numbers of images: tanks covered in camouflage, tanks obscured by bushes, tanks deep in mud. It needs to be able to recognize the difference between a military tank and a civilian tractor, as well as what type of tank it’s looking at, so it knows friend from foe. For a company like Draganfly, which is selling drones with landmine-detection software, staff need to train their AI on thousands of images, so their system can tell the difference between a rock formation and a modern mine.

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“Ukraine is the only place in the world where you can get that data at the moment,” says Ingvild Bode, associate professor at the Center for War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark.

Draganfly is far from the only company to have noticed the potential of Ukraine to gather data. Chell is among a wave of international AI executives traveling to and from the conflict to test and train their products. German AI company Helsing says it has staff regularly traveling to the country. Data analytics company Palantir has opened an office in Kyiv and is offering its services pro bono. “You have to ask yourself, why are they doing that?” says Bode. “There are a number of reasons, and the value of the data will absolutely be one of them.”

Some international companies working in the conflict zone are using their experiences in Ukraine to refine the products they are selling back home. Seattle-based BRINC has designed “Lemur” drones, which are designed to be able to break through windows to access buildings. In the US, they’ve been marketed to police to use in active shooter scenarios. But in Ukraine, they’re being used to help search for survivors after missile attacks, according to the company’s founder, Blake Resnick. The company recently released its Lemur 2 model, which “does utilize some feedback that we've gotten from Ukraine,” he says. The new model can make floor plans of a building as it flies around and can maintain its position in the air, even when the pilot takes their hands off the controller. These ideas might have grown out of BRINC’s work in Ukraine, but according to the company’s YouTube advert, they’re now being marketed to police forces back in the US.

The “data is the new oil” cliché might illustrate data’s value. But it also speaks to the way data can be extracted from a country without benefiting the people who live there. In the first year after the invasion, Ukraine was so welcoming to American tech companies that even startups whose pitches had been rejected at home by the Pentagon got the green light to be trialed by Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines. But that warm welcome is starting to chill, as Ukrainian government officials recognize how valuable their battlefield data would be if it remained in Ukrainian hands.

“You can’t even imagine how many foreign companies are already using Ukraine as a testing ground for their products: AI companies like Clearview, Palantir; anti-jamming systems; everything that has a software component is in Ukraine right now,” says Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine's deputy minister for digital transformation.

Ukraine is very aware of the value of its data, Bornyakov says, cautioning that companies shouldn’t expect to arrive in the country and get access to data for nothing. “This experience we’re in right now—how to manage troops, how to manage them smarter and automatically—nobody has that,” he says. “This data certainly is not for sale. It’s only available if you offer some sort of mutually beneficial cooperation.”

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Instead, Ukraine wants to use the data that’s being gathered for its own defense sector. “After the war has finished, Ukraine companies will go to the market and offer solutions that probably nobody else has,” Bornyakov says.

Over the past few months, Ukraine has been talking up its ambitions to leverage its battlefield innovations to build a military-tech industry of its own.

“We want to build a very strong defense tech industry,” says Nataliia Kushnerska, project lead for Brave1, a Ukrainian state platform designed to make it easier for defense-tech companies to pitch their products to the military. The country still wants to partner and cooperate with international companies, she says, but there is a growing emphasis on homegrown solutions.

Building a domestic industry would help protect the country from future Russian aggression, Kushnerska says. And Ukrainians have a better understanding of the dynamics of the battlefield than their international counterparts. “Technologies that cost a huge amount of money, made in [overseas] laboratories, are coming to the front line, and they're not working,” she says.

Brave1—which was exclusively open to Ukrainian companies for its first two months of existence—is not the country’s only attempt to build a homegrown industry. Kushnerska describes secret tech conferences, attended by Ukrainian tech executives and Ministry of Defense officials, where discussions can take place about what the militaries need and how companies can help. In May, Ukraine’s parliament voted through a series of tax breaks for drone makers, in an attempt to encourage the industry. Those government efforts, combined with the huge demand for drones and the motivation to win the war, is creating entire new industries, says Bornyakov. He claims the country now has more than 300 companies making drones.

One of those 300 companies is AeroDrone, which started out as a crop-spraying system based in Germany. By the time of the full-scale invasion, the company’s Ukrainian founder, Yuri Pederi, had already moved back to his home country. But the war inspired him to pivot the business. Now the drones, which can carry heavy loads of up to 300 kilograms, are being used by the Ukrainian military.

“We don’t know what the military are carrying,” says Dmytro Shymkiv, a partner at the company, who used to be deputy chief of staff for Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian president who preceded Zelenskyy. He might plead ignorance to what AeroDrone drones are transporting, but the company is collecting vast amounts of data—up to 3,000 parameters—on each flight. “We are very much aware of what's going on with every piece of equipment on board,” he says, adding that information about flying while being jammed, or in different weather conditions, can be repurposed in other industries or even other conflicts.

Aerodrone offers a glimpse of the future companies Bornyakov is describing. Armed with that data, the company sees a wide range of options for its future once the war is over, both military and civilian. If you can fly in a war zone, Shymkiv says, you can fly anywhere.

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Morgan Meaker is a senior writer at WIRED covering European business. Before that, she was a technology reporter at The Telegraph and also worked for Dutch magazine De Correspondent. In 2019 she won Technology Journalist of the Year at the Words by Women Awards. She was born in Scotland, lives… Read more
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