From Robots to Recycled Vapes, Ukraine’s War Effort Gets Inventive

The battered country is nurturing a cottage industry of military gadgetry, and the pipeline of science and tech creativity is bearing fruit.

(Bloomberg) — The science conference had all the hot topics you’d expect, from artificial intelligence to gene therapy. But this year’s annual gathering of brains in Kyiv had a decidedly Ukrainian twist — the innovations on exhibit were for war. 

A maker of attack drones was diversifying to unmanned ground combat vehicles. From the Academy of Sciences came a prototype underwater robot for finding and collecting submerged land mines. One startup was developing low-cost combat communications; another, a web-based test to find warning signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

In the 18 months since Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s resilience with the help of mainly NATO-member weaponry has come to define the war. Less noticed is a cottage industry of battlefield gadgetry that’s starting to bear fruit.

Ukraine, like Russia, has a strong science base, a legacy of the Soviet-era focus on math and engineering. While no single device will change the course of the conflict, the government is trying to consolidate the nation’s sometimes chaotic entrepreneurial output in the belief that — taken together — it can make a difference.

One such innovation, explosive sea drones, has been under intense development in Ukraine since last year. At the weekend, the newest iterations were able to strike and cripple both a Russian warship and oil tanker in the Black Sea. That followed the success of a year-old project that helped accelerate the development and production of aerial drones.

To package everything in one place, Ukraine’s government in April started an incubator for all forms of military innovation, called Brave 1. Organizers say they’ve registered about 400 projects in four months, and Ukraine’s armed forces have so far vetted 186 as potentially useful. Sixty are in robotics, more than 25 in AI, and 70 are for unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. 

“Our task is to develop military technologies in Ukraine,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, who described Brave 1 as the institutionalization of his Army of Drones program. Success ultimately will be judged on how many projects get state contracts, he said.There are plenty of contenders. Some are adapting existing kit, others are making cheaper versions of Western equipment Ukraine can’t afford, and others again just respond to feedback from friends on the battlefield.

Take Himera Tech. It set out to build affordable, jam-resistant radio handsets shortly after Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces attacked in February 2022. It took until April this year for the first units to roll off their production line and about 600 are now in use at the front, according to co-founder Misha Rudominski. The company registered with Brave 1 in May.

The trick to building cheaper is the software the company developed to maximize performance in commercially available chips, Rudominski  said. Radio sets made with military grade chips are more secure, but also cost thousands of dollars apiece. With as many as 250,000 combat soldiers to equip, that’s a bill Ukraine can’t foot.

“We wanted to build a solution that is just good enough,” Rudominski said at his stall at June’s Inscience conference in Kyiv. “This wouldn’t defeat US or Chinese electronic warfare systems, but it doesn’t need to. We’re fighting the Russians.”

Himera Tech expects to produce 2,000-3,000 units per month by the end of the year. It isn’t yet selling to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, but that’s the aim and the company reckons it could then scale to 10,000 units per month. A model that can compete with military grade kit is in development, according to Rudominski.

Another Kyiv-based outfit, Power Kit, uses discarded electronic cigarettes to make power banks. Ivan Volynets, who founded the nonprofit together with five other IT specialists, described how in the first days of the Russian invasion they asked friends on the front line what they needed. The answers boiled down to night vision, power banks and weapons.

They made a night vision device paired with its own power bank and took it to the defense ministry. To their surprise, it was the power bank the army wanted, because they charge all the electronics front-line soldiers rely on, including night-vision gear, drones and communications.

The first Power Kit emerged in May 2022, built in the kitchen of the hotel the team were staying at in Lviv, western Ukraine, said Volynets, 30. They’ve since made more than 2,100 at a cost of about $15 each and distribute them free of charge to soldiers.Read More:Europe Can’t Supply Ukraine With Weapons Fast Enough, Here’s WhyUkrainians Dig Into Their Own Pockets to Fund Drones and MortarsUkraine Arms Chief Ramps Up Production Despite Missile Strikes

Yevhenii Rvachov was IT specialist working with civilian drones in the northern city of Kharkiv before the invasion. He too consulted with soldiers after co-founding a company, Skylab UA, to make a bomb-dropping quadrocopter — a drone with four rotors — in April last year.

They told him they needed ground robots to make supplying forward positions less dangerous. So Skylab built the Sirko-S, a remote-controlled go-cart-like carrier with thermal cameras that can be used to bring up supplies or evacuate wounded. They’ll cost of $8,000-$10,000 each. 

The company’s $5,000 “Johnny” is a shoe-box-size version, with a view to forward surveillance, kamikaze bombing runs or to help emergency services find survivors in collapsed buildings, according to Rvachov. All three products are registered with Brave 1, with grants approved, according to the organizers. Ten quadrocopters are in action at the front.

Close to the Polish border, a company called Citius-S is converting six-wheel drive cargo trucks into armored vehicles for clearing land mines and unexploded ordinance. The State Emergency Service of Ukraine saw the prototype in action last month and ordered 33 units, according to the company.

For underwater mines, the Institute for Problems of Artificial Intelligence at Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences is developing a submersible device to find and retrieve ordinance left behind by the Russians. A prototype of the cuboid robot just began tests of its electronic systems, according to Sergii Simchenko, a PhD candidate in physics and math at the institute, who is working on the project.

Not every innovation or adaptation is about weapons, though. The Bohun amphibious all-terrain vehicle has huge tires with fin-like tread to climb over fallen trees or cross lakes and rivers. It was designed for Ukraine’s hunters and fishermen, and since the Russian invasion a number were adapted for military use and sent to the front.

But in June, six of the newer Bohun-2 model also were converted to help evacuate victims of the flooding around the city of Kherson that followed destruction of a  dam on Ukraine’s massive Dnipro River. Lights and loudhailers were added outside the cabins, as well as extra batteries, removable seats and helicopter-ready metal stretchers inside. 

Back at the Inscience conference, Sergiy Danylov was showing off the software his team at Anima have created. It uses an image-based test to measure levels of depression and anxiety with a web cam that follows eye movement to add objectivity.

The test involves looking at a series of trigger images, such as snakes, spiders and mutilated corpses, in each case on a split screen with more emotionally neutral options opposite. The key lies in how subjects respond, with some looking away to avoid the danger signals and others unable to take their eyes off them.

That helps with diagnosis of battle stress, which if caught early can be prevented from developing into PTSD, said Danylov, who has a PhD in neurobiology. The Anima program is for now aimed at soldiers and refugees, but the Ukrainian Health Ministry said last year that PTSD could end up affecting 57% of the population.

Anima has given the software to combat psychologists, who are using it unofficially to measure stress levels among troops and rest those at risk. The program has not yet been approved and licensed by the regulator, a years-long process.

But it’s already on the radar of the Brave 1 program. “Know this team,” Iryna Supruniuk, Communications Lead at Brave 1, said in an emailed response to questions. Anima wasn’t yet on her platform, she said, but it seems only a question of time. “Really nice solution.”


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