FEB 16, 2023
In 2015, Ivan Tolchinsky built his own drone to video his friends on a skiing trip. It was a fun toy, but it could be much more. Although born in Ukraine, Tolchinsky served as an Israeli Defense Forces sniper in Lebanon in 2006, and appreciated the military value of being able to see over the next hill. Eight years of tinkering later, drones from his startup Atlas Dynamics are a secret weapon for Ukrainian special forces.
“For us, it’s like a big success because our product was prepared for just such a kind of war,” Tolchinsky tells Popular Mechanics. “During this war, what we see now is how our drone exactly fits their needs.”
Hundreds of these AtlasPRO drones are in action today, and since the Russian invasion began last February, Tolchinsky has expanded his team in Latvia with refugees from Ukraine. This success comes from years of hard work developing drones to meet the military’s exacting requirements, giving Tolchinsky unique insight into the current state of the art and where the drone war is headed next.
Jam Today, More Jam Tomorrow
A slew of Ukrainian startups have produced bigger, more expensive drones for the military since 2015, but the vast majority of drones at the front are small quadcopters, typically the Mavic series made by Chinese company DJI. In the early days of the invasion, these quadcopters helped tank-hunting teams stalk their prey in cities and towns. Now, they carry out surveillance and reconnaissance missions; guide indirect fire by artillery, tanks, and mortars; and assess the results. Some of them also drop grenades into Russian trenches.
Consumer drones cannot do what AtlasPRO can. Unlike most consumer quadcopters, Atlas drones have a high-quality thermal imager allowing them to fly at night and in poor visibility.
They also have a much more important advantage.
Long before the war, Tolchinsky noted radio communications were the Achilles heel of consumer drones. Since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, it has fielded a variety of jamming systems to blot out radio communications; they can blast out radio noise and drown out a drone operator’s control signal as well as its GPS guidance. Some Russian units also have special anti-drone “rifles,” which resemble sci-fi weapons firing a beam of radio energy. Both types cause drones to lose control and land where they are. These jammers do not cover everything, but can present a brick wall to consumer drones.
“For some of the areas in Ukraine, you can’t even fly with a DJI drone,” says Tolchinsky. “Full jamming on all frequencies.”
Russia claims to have taken out 90 percent of Ukrainian drones with jamming. This is probably exaggerated, but a report from the U.K. think tank RUSI suggested that in the early months of the war, quadcopters on the front line only lasted three flights on average before jamming got them.
Even some military drones are vulnerable. When the U.S. sent RQ-11 Raven scout drones to Ukraine in 2016, they were quickly shelved because they could not handle Russian jamming. (The U.S. Army used a more advanced version of the Raven with more robust digital communications.)
From the start, Tolchinsky’s team had developed communications that filter out interference from jammers. The work paid off: Atlas drones carried out missions where others were grounded.
But that is not the end of the challenge.
“What we have seen during this past year is that the Russians are constantly adapting their systems. We must keep developing, and keep changing. Every two months, we release a new update,” he says.
Tolchinsky describes a new, smart frequency hopping system that scans the airwaves, spots which frequencies are being jammed, and automatically switches to an open frequency. But even this will not solve the problem permanently.
“It’s continuous fighting, continuous,” says Tolchinsky. “Everyday, we get reports from the field about what is happening, and we have a dedicated team just working to solve the problem of jamming.”
As Russian jamming efforts intensify, Tolchinsky doubts whether it will be possible to even fly consumer drones close to the front lines for much longer.
“The DJI, it’s a great system, but it’s [a] consumer-type system. Their main focus is to make a drone with an amazing camera that can shoot amazing shots and videos. In our case, what we’re looking for is to be robust to all anti-drone jamming and work with no GPS.”
So far, Atlas drones have not dropped grenades like other drones, though this would be a minor modification; Tolchinsky says arming his drones might cause problems with his non-military customers. He admits, though, that he cannot control what people do with them. DJI has also stated that its drones are only meant for civilian purposes, but operators frequently use them for bombing.
Three Beats Four
Unusually, AtlasPRO is a tricopter with three sets of rotors rather than the usual four-rotor quadcopter configuration. Tolchinsky’s design, with two rotors in front and one behind, offers superior aerodynamics, resulting in a better combination of speed, endurance, and altitude than a quadcopter. Having just three motors made it both cheaper and lighter, but the design also brought some complications.
While quadcopters steer by changing the speed of the four rotors, tricopters need variable-pitch propellers, controlled by a small servo motor.
“The servo broke after five minutes. It was broken because it’s too much load during the flight. It took half a year to solve this problem,” says Tolchinsky. “Then we designed our own servo, with the insight into how to make the mechanism more robust.”
That was eight years ago. In the intervening time, Tolchinsky says that steady improvements in quadcopter design have narrowed the gap.
“Now you have next-generation engines and propellers. Also we know much more about flying quadricopter drones. Right now, we still have a tricopter, and that’s what we’re working with. But our future drone is going to be quadricopter.”
Tolchinsky says Atlas Dynamics is planning on releasing a quadcopter next year, and that may be the pattern for the future.
Toward Swarm Commanders
Atlas drones have mesh radio, a setup in which every radio is a node that communicates with all other nearby nodes, forming a robust network. If one drone is, say, in a deep valley, it may not be able to communicate directly with the operator, but it can communicate with another drone overhead, which in turn communicates with the operator. If needed, this can occur via multiple hops.
The current setup can include up to five drones in a network. One operator can control five simultaneously, as the drones mainly fly themselves.
“Our idea now is to increase the capacity of the mesh [to] up to 50 drones operating [at] the same time,” says Tolchinsky. “But the main idea is going to make an ecosystem.”
The ecosystem will include different types of drones working together in the same mesh. For example, there might be a fixed-wing drone circling at high altitude as a communications relay, a mix of multicopters below with different sensors or other capabilities, and potentially ground robots as well.
The Triumph of Build-It-Yourself
Tolchinsky has always insisted that Atlas make everything itself rather than buy cameras, flight controllers, and other technology off the shelf. This sidesteps the issue of export regulations from foreign suppliers.
Export restrictions have already hit arms supplies headed for Ukraine. Poland, for example, was not able to send its German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine for several months until the German government finally gave its approval. Tolchinsky says the same applies to drones; it can take six months or more to get approvals for export, which is far too long in wartime. So, Atlas makes everything itself. That includes not just basic items, but more complex devices like the smart FGPA controller and even thermal cameras.
“That was a huge piece of work which took two years,” says Tolchinsky. “Many people did not believe we [could] make it, but we did.”
There is also the issue of trust. In 2021, the Pentagon issued a directive banning U.S. forces from using Chinese-made quadcopters, as they present “a threat to national security.” The risk is that the information the drones pass back to the makers could be handed to the Chinese government, revealing operating locations of other military secrets. By making everything itself, Atlas knows it can trust that the final product will not contain spyware or other unpleasant surprises.
By contrast, Russia’s drone industry relies on imported components, and it has been forced to go to Iran for Shahed-136 attack drones. As sanctions start to bite and huge demand makes components harder to acquire, Tolchinsky’s build-it-yourself strategy looks more and more like a smart move.
The drones will have more intelligence so the operator does not need to constantly look at video feeds. Instead, the drone itself will be able to scan an area on its own, only alerting the operator when it finds, for example, something that looks like a Russian tank.
“We spoke with many customers from NATO and the main focus is going to be reducing screen time,” says Tolchinsky. “Every year, we’re going to get much less and less screen time for the user.”
Each drone operator will become a swarm commander, managing a team of drones which do most of the work on their own, only requiring human input for command decisions.
The onboard intelligence will be provided by a computer-on-a-chip known as a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA). This is basically a microchip that allows companies to make their own specialized processor, enabling efficient hardware for a specific application without having to build a multibillion-dollar factory. Like everything in its drones, Atlas developed this itself (see sidebar). The Atlas FPGA has been in the pipeline for five years, and will be released later this year.
Selling a Million
Tolchinsky says the move toward a distributed, multi-drone setup requires a specific type of drone: one that is affordable.
Traditionally, military aircraft get progressively more complex, more capable, and more expensive with each generation, with numbers getting ever lower. During WWII, the U.S. produced almost 100,000 fighters and over 30,000 bombers; now, the U.S. Air Force has 1,500 fighters and just 152 bombers. Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, once proposed a set of humorous “laws,” including the idea that the costs went up exponentially, so that by 2054, the entire defense budget would only buy one aircraft.
“There are some very expensive drones in Ukraine, but they’re not flying because they’re scared to fly them in case something happened and they crashed.”
“My plan is that the next generation will be about 8,000 Euros [$8,740] per unit,” says Tolchinsky. “That’s half the price of the current drone.”
This moreso follows the pattern of Moore’s Law—which states that electronics become steadily more capable over time—than Augustine’s Law of increasing aircraft prices. It is a radical ideal in military circles ,where everything always gets more expensive. But, as Tolchinsky notes, military drone makers cannot keep pushing prices up now that they have competition from civilian drone manufacturers at a fraction of the cost. He wants to keep finding ways to lower the production cost rather than selling ever-more-exquisite hardware.
“I don’t want to sell one drone for a million dollars,” says Tolchinsky. “I just want to sell a million of them for one dollar.”
Focus on Ukraine
At present, Tolchinsky is heavily focused on Ukraine. His other European military customers in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom have accepted delays to planned deliveries. He has big plans for future industrial and commercial drones, too, but those are also on hold.
Right now, it’s all about the war, and while soldiers on the ground are doing the fighting, the drones overhead are guiding them, ensuring they can see and shoot at Russian forces without being spotted themselves. And that calls for small, affordable drones.
“You need a small drone, because everyone has to have one, and the big systems are going to be too expensive and too hard to use,” says Tolchinsky.
Atlas currently ships 200 drones per month, but hopes to increase that figure to 800. On the day Popular Mechanics talked to Tolchinsky in January, he was in Kyiv for discussions about setting up a facility there. Initially, this would focus on drone repair, but he hopes to be able to assemble drones in Ukraine soon.
This is increasingly a war of drones. And Tolchinsky plans to help Ukraine win that war with a fleet of advanced drones that Russia cannot match, all based on that one original toy.