A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 10, 2024

Glitchy, Pricey Silicon Valley Drones Forced Ukraine Back To Chinese Models

Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, $2.5 billion has in venture capital has been invested in US drone manufacturing startups hoping to prove they make superior drones for military use which can garner massive Pentagon - and global defense contracts.

But US drones have so far proven to be under-performers - and too expensive - compared to off the shelf Chinese models, so Ukrainian forces are sticking with the Chinese. JL 

Heather Somerville and Brett Forrest report in the Wall Street Journal:

Most small drones from U.S. startups failed to perform in combat, dashing hopes that being battle-tested would bring startups sales. Ukrainian officials found U.S. drones fragile and unable to overcome Russian jamming. US drones often fail to fly distances advertised or carry (needed) payloads. Venture capital in startups building small, AI-powered craft, to sell them to the U.S. government focused on drones built faster and cheaper than defense contractors'. 300 U.S. drone companies raised $2.5 billion in venture-capital in the past two years  “The reputation for every class of U.S. drone in Ukraine is that they don’t work as well as other systems (and are) not a successful platform on the front lines.” Ukraine has found ways to get tens of thousands of drones as well as drone parts from China that work.

The Silicon Valley company Skydio sent hundreds of its best drones to Ukraine to help fight the Russians. Things didn’t go well. 

Skydio’s drones flew off course and were lost, victims of Russia’s electronic warfare. The company has since gone back to the drawing board to build a new fleet.

Most small drones from U.S. startups have failed to perform in combat, dashing companies’ hopes that a badge of being battle-tested would bring the startups sales and attention. It is also bad news for the Pentagon, which needs a reliable supply of thousands of small, unmanned aircraft.

In the first war to feature small drones prominently, American companies still have no meaningful presence. Made-in-America drones tend to be expensive, glitchy and hard to repair, said drone company executives, Ukrainians on the front lines, Ukrainian government officials and former U.S. defense officials. 

Absent solutions from the West, Ukraine has turned to cheaper Chinese products to fill its drone arsenal.

“The general reputation for every class of U.S. drone in Ukraine is that they don’t work as well as other systems,” Skydio Chief Executive Adam Bry said, calling his own drone “not a very successful platform on the front lines.”

There has been a deluge of venture capital invested in startups trying to build small, AI-powered aircraft, hoping to sell them to the U.S. government. Startups have focused on commercial drones that can be built faster and cheaper than the large military drones made by traditional defense contractors. Nearly 300 U.S.-based drone-technology companies raised a total of around $2.5 billion in venture-capital funding in the past two years, according to the data firm PitchBook. 

Ukrainian officials have found U.S.-made drones fragile and unable to overcome Russian jamming and GPS blackout technology. At times, they couldn’t take off, complete missions or return home. American drones often fail to fly at the distances advertised or carry substantial payloads.

Small American drones for the battlefield “have been underdeveloped,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a senior analyst at Ukraine’s Come Back Alive, a charity that has supplied more than 30,000 drones to the military.

American drone company executives say they didn’t anticipate the electronic warfare in Ukraine. In Skydio’s case, its drone was designed in 2019 to meet communications standards set by the U.S. military. Several startup executives said U.S. restrictions on drone parts and testing limit what they can build and how fast they can build it. 

Those restrictions have proven a problem in the drone battles that sometimes require daily updates and upgrades, said Georgii Dubynskyi, Ukraine’s deputy minister of digital transformation, the agency that oversees the country’s drone program.

“What is flying today won’t be able to fly tomorrow,” he said. “We have to adapt to the emerging technologies quickly. The innovation cycle in this war is very short.”

Using Chinese drones

Ukraine has found ways to get tens of thousands of drones as well as drone parts from China. The military is using off-the-shelf Chinese drones, primarily from SZ DJI Technology.

Ukraine has also developed a domestic drone industry that relies on Chinese components. Ukrainian factories are churning out hundreds of thousands of small, cheap drones that can carry explosives. It also produces larger drones that can strike deep into enemy territory and reach Russian ships on the Black Sea

Dubynskyi said Ukraine wants to test and use more U.S. drones. “Nevertheless, we are looking for cost-effective solutions,” he said.

Ukrainian forces are burning through about 10,000 drones a month, which they couldn’t afford if they had to buy expensive U.S. drones. Many American commercial drones cost tens of thousands of dollars more each than a Chinese model.

Less than a month after Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the Pentagon approved the supply of Switchblade 300 drones from the Virginia-based defense contractor 

. The Switchblades faced initial challenges with Russia’s electronic-warfare systems, according to a former U.S. soldier who worked with the drones in Ukraine.


An AeroVironment spokeswoman said Russian jamming has affected everyone and the company’s drones are updated to deal with it. 

The U.S.-Greek startup Velos Rotors said its V3 twin-engine helicopter drone experienced a test failure in a December demonstration outside Kyiv, according to a company spokeswoman. She said that Ukrainian forces are using the V3 and that the company hopes to ship more models this year if it can get orders from the U.S. government. 

Joining AeroVironment as one of the few U.S. drone manufacturers to win a Defense Department contract for Ukraine is 

, a North Carolina-based manufacturer of movie-production drones modified to carry an explosive.

In a written briefing to shareholders, Cyberlux said it had failed to meet production and delivery goals for the drones. Chief Executive Mark Schmidt said the company hasn’t breached its contract with the Defense Department, worth up to $79 million.

There have been successes. Skydio drone footage has assisted the Ukrainian investigations of alleged Russian war crimes, including attacks on civilians and a nuclear facility, according to Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General. 

About 60 drones from Seattle-based Brinc have been deployed for search and rescue and scouting for Russians inside buildings. But the drone startup isn’t certain it wants to be in the business of fighting wars.

“Is this a huge opportunity for American drone companies in general?” asked Brinc Chief Executive Blake Resnick. “I’m not sure.”

‘We can’t miss on this’

China’s DJI has proven to be the go-to drone brand for Ukraine’s military. DJI said in a statement that it tries to restrict the use of its drones in the war but can’t control how the drones are used after they are purchased. 

“DJI absolutely deplores and condemns the use of its products to cause harm anywhere in the world,” the statement said.

The U.S. has called DJI a Chinese military company and a surveillance tool for Beijing, which DJI denies. The Pentagon has banned DJI drones in the U.S. military, and congressional legislation would ban new DJI products in the U.S. 

In its statement, DJI called the proposed ban politically motivated and the product of lobbying by American drone companies that are trying to eliminate competition.

The shortcomings of U.S. drone makers are partly the result of the U.S. government’s policy response to China, according to drone executives and former defense officials. The Defense Department has imposed strict requirements on drone manufacturers, including a ban of Chinese components, which has made it more expensive and harder to build small drones, the executives and former officials said.

A Defense Department spokesman said it is paramount to ensure that drones have a secure supply chain and meet military standards.

A Defense Department program launched in 2020 to help startup company drones sell to the U.S. military doesn’t allow drone makers to update their software without government approval. This requirement can leave the drones made according to U.S. regulations vulnerable to evolving methods of cyberattacks and electronic warfare. 

The Defense Innovation Unit, Silicon Valley’s outpost of the Defense Department, runs the drone startup program that supports Skydio and other startups. A spokeswoman for the unit said software changes on drones must be assessed for security. She said the unit is trying to improve the process to provide software approval within a few days. 

Skydio employees went back to Ukraine 17 times to get feedback, Bry said. Its new drone is built around Ukraine’s military needs and feedback from public-safety agencies and other customers, he said, rather than U.S. Defense Department requirements that are sometimes divorced from battlefield realities.

Ukraine has requested thousands of the new Skydio X10, which has a radio that can switch frequencies on its own as soon as its signal is jammed by electronic interference. It also has better navigation capabilities so it can fly at high altitudes without GPS, Skydio said.

“It is critical for Skydio, and I think the U.S. drone industry at large, that we make X10 succeed at scale on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Bry said. “There’s no alternative. As a country, we can’t miss on this.


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