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Are Ukraine’s drone capabilities being throttled in Russia-Ukraine conflict?

News Analysis
Mar 11, 20224 mins
Aerospace and Defense IndustrySurveillance

Chinese drone producer DJI Global is accused of limiting capabilities of its AeroScope technology for the Ukrainian army, giving an air reconnaissance edge to Russian invaders.

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Credit: iStock/Thinkstock

Chinese drone producer DJI Global has been accused of limiting the capabilities of its AeroScope technology for the Ukrainian army, giving a significant air reconnaissance edge to Russian invaders amid the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The unconfirmed claims were made by a Twitter user on March 10.

Volodymyr Shymanskyy, co-founder of Blynk IoT Platform, made the claims on Twitter. He said his information comes from its working group within the Ukrainian Forces. A DJI spokesperson in the U.S. rebuffed the accusations, stating that a technical problem is responsible for some systems malfunctioning in Ukraine.

Use of AeroScope technology in Russia-Ukraine conflict

In a tweet, Shymanskyy said that DJI Aeroscope is proprietary hardware that allows the tracking of movement of any DJI drone in the range of 10 kilometers, a range that can be extended up to 50 kilometers with supplementary DJI-made antennae.

Shymanskyy made these claims:

  • AeroScope technology allows one to see the exact position of drone operators as well as the personal details they used when registering with DJI.
  • The Ukrainian military uses various models of DJI drones in their reconnaissance activities. DJI is the largest drone maker in the world.
  • Russians are using the AeroScope hardware to track the drone operators’ positions to target their artillery/rocket fire. “In other words, Russians use DJI technology to kill Ukrainian drone operators,” the tweet read
  • The Ukrainian army reports that the AeroScope technology is “effectively turned off for Ukrainian operators. In fact, while Russians have the technical capabilities to track Ukrainian DJI drone operators, the Ukrainian army cannot do the same.”
  • Based on the above information, he accuses DJI of helping Russia: “This, in turn, means that the largest Chinese drone manufacturing company secretly supports the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine, by providing access to all its technology capacities to Russians and turning them off remotely for Ukrainians.”

On March 11, Shymanskyy Tweeted that the issue is not new, and that the same thing occurred in 2016 when the Russians entered regions in Ukraine. In a Facebook post cited by Shymanskyy, Taras Troiak, chairman of the Ukrainian Federation of UAV owners, outlined how to use the drones without being tracked.

DJI’s geofencing restrictions designed for notification, not enforcement

In response, DJI North America Corporate Communication Director Adam Lisberg stated that reports are false. “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.”

Lisberg also stated that DJI’s geofencing restrictions for Ukraine and the rest of the world are designed for notification, not enforcement. “DJI’s GEO System delineates where it is safe to fly, where flight may raise concerns, and where flight is restricted,” read a post on the firm’s official website. “GEO zones that prohibit flight are implemented around locations such as airports, power plants, and prisons. They are also implemented temporarily around major stadium events, forest fires, or other emergency situations.”

Certain GEO zones don’t prohibit flight but do trigger warnings that inform users of potential risks, it continued. “By default, GEO limits flights into or taking off within zones that raise safety or security concerns.” If a flight within one of these locations has been authorized, GEO allows users with verified DJI accounts to temporarily unlock or self-authorize their flights, and this unlock function is not available for sensitive national-security locations.

“The GEO system is advisory only. Each user is responsible for checking official sources and determining what laws or regulations might apply to his or her flight. In some instances, DJI has selected widely recommended general parameters without making any determination of whether this guidance matches regulations that may apply specifically to you.”

CSO continues to investigate this story and will provide further detail when possible.

UK Editor

Michael Hill is the UK editor of CSO Online. He has spent the past five-plus years covering various aspects of the cybersecurity industry, with particular interest in the ever-evolving role of the human-related elements of information security. A keen storyteller with a passion for the publishing process, he enjoys working creatively to produce media that has the biggest possible impact on the audience.

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