KYIV, Ukraine — Well, it isn’t your typical hip-hop video, but even the ghost of Biggie Smalls might approve of how his lyrics have been repurposed. “He get a free lift to the cemetery, rough very” comes in just as a white Russian van is spotted from the air. In the next frame, something filmed from a different angle — possibly the van, or maybe another target — has been consumed by a fireball, the handiwork of Ukrainian artillery. No state-of-the-art military drone scouted this vehicle’s location, somewhere on the battlefield, but rather a $2,000 quadcopter coordinated with Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet network.
In a small, bustling cafe in Kyiv’s impossibly trendy Podil district earlier this month, “Kito” shows footage of his handiwork to Yahoo News, apologizing that he occasionally struggles with his hearing. “A Russian shell landed five meters from my foxhole,” Kito says. The blast gave him a concussion, and probably permanently damaged his hearing. “But I’m still alive.”
Like many Ukrainians, Kito prefers journalists to use his nom de guerre rather than his legal name — though with his Tony Stark goatee and bailiwick, one’s almost compelled to call him Iron Man. He’s the software engineer and member of the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF) responsible for coming up with this elaborate system combining inexpensive commercial tech with advanced weaponry. Before the war Kito worked full-time in Copenhagen as a principal engineer for the Danish jewelry company Pandora, keeping its logistics and delivery systems running smoothly. He hasn’t quit his job and his employer’s been just fine with his new gig. “You can’t be fired, no matter how much time you’re taking off, as long as you’re using it to fight the Russians,” he says.
On the first day of the war, Kito joined up. “I thought, if I die, I’m going to die with a gun in my hands.”
While a lot of people headed west, out of the path of the invading Russian troops, Kito stayed in Kyiv to defend the city. A regular in shooting competitions, he’d trained soldiers in the Ukrainian military on marksmanship in 2014 and 2015, when the Russians first seized Crimea and kick-started a dirty war in Donbas. “I’ve got AR-15s and AKs at home,” Kito says proudly.
On Feb. 24, the first day of Russia’s latest invasion, all his shooting buddies from the local firing range created a channel on WhatsApp and took the collective decision to join up. They all enlisted in the same unit, a Ukrainian version of the British “pals” battalions from World War 1. Because of their experience on the range, their commander put them all into a reconnaissance squad. There, Kito put his programming skills to good use.
Key to this was Starlink, manufactured by Musk’s satellite and spacecraft company SpaceX. The Starlink network consists of a “constellation” of 3,000 small satellites in low-earth orbit, which connect to special terminals and offer internet access in remote areas. Dead zones thus come to life.
At the start of the war, Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Fedorov made a direct appeal to Musk on Twitter, asking the SpaceX CEO to help provide internet connectivity to the country. In response, the next day Musk tweeted, “Starlink service is now active in Ukraine. More terminals en route.” By May, there were 150,000 active daily users in the country, according to Fedorov. Fifteen thousand terminals — which are about the size of a pizza box and connected to a dish-type antenna — were in use in Ukraine as of June 5. Whatever Musk’s reputation may be at home, in Ukraine he is almost universally regarded as a hero; ditto outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, thanks to the United Kingdom’s outsize security assistance. Neither Musk nor SpaceX responded to Yahoo News’ requests for comment for this story.
The convenience of Starlink terminals is that they require very little electricity to operate. They can be powered from a car cigarette lighter, enabling Ukrainian recon units like Kito’s to access the internet from anywhere, even in the absence of an external power source like a power grid or a dedicated generator.
He rigged three DJI Mavic 3 consumer drones into a “relay” system that could maintain continuous surveillance of a target. Each drone has a 30-minute flight time, and so while one is on station hovering above a target, another flies to relieve it, while a third returns to base to be fitted with a new battery. That way, the target is never out of sight. The images recorded by each drone are sent back to the recon unit, which relays them via Starlink to the artillery battery, which then fires on the target.
In addition to Starlink and these jury-rigged drones, Kito uses specially designed software GIS Arta, nicknamed “Uber for Artillery,” which uses the drone relay to record the strikes on enemy positions. “The army gets real-time video of their shells landing,” according to Kito. “It makes their fire vastly more accurate.”
Back at the TDF, Ukrainian analysts feed the raw image data captured by their recon teams into computers at a newly created analytical center. Over a dozen teams now feed this center footage, which sets target prioritization and stops duplication of artillery fire missions. “We don’t want to waste shells on something that’s already been destroyed,” Kito says.
Another specially written software suite, which translates from Ukrainian as “in my palms,” uses machine learning to analyze raw video and automatically identifies armored vehicles, tanks or artillery pieces from the footage it “sees.” “The more video transmitted, the smarter it gets,” Kito says.
It’s not just military applications the Ukrainians have been using their Starlink systems for.
An ambitious plan hatched by members of Ukraine’s “maker community” envisions using the SpaceX system to bring high-speed internet connectivity to villages in the west of Ukraine, enabling people from the east who are forced from their homes to find somewhere to live that’s better than the camps created to shelter those who are displaced. There are many settlements far away from the frontlines that are underpopulated owing to urban sprawl. The idea is to help those who have lost their homes in the war relocate to these villages and give them both Wi-Fi and also the ability to easily renovate dilapidated houses.
“Once you hook up a 3D printer to a Starlink system you can effectively print many of the day-to-day things refugees will need,” such as building materials and tools, Yuri Vlasyuk, a member of the team behind the project, told Yahoo News.
Starlink’s utility in Ukraine has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. military. In July, the U.S. Air Force granted SpaceX a $1.9 million contract for Starlink services in Europe and Africa, noting that the system “is also the only LEO [low-earth orbit] satellite network provider that is currently being used in a contested environment: Ukraine.”
Musk himself has claimed that despite Russian electronic warfare assets deployed in Ukraine, the Starlink constellation “has resisted Russian cyberwar jamming & hacking attempts so far, but they’re ramping up their efforts.”
As for Kito, his unit’s newfound success was not all good news. After several weeks of successful operations, the Russians began taking their recon team seriously, actively trying to hunt them. They devoted extensive electronic warfare assets in an effort to locate them by triangulating their positions.
“They are not idiots,” Kito says. “They’re assholes, but not idiots.”