October 28, 2022 | OPINION | By AJ Fabbri | Illustration by Elizabeth White

On a sunny October morning, a Da-Jiang Innovations Mavic drone with a broken propeller tumbled from the skies, meeting its end on a farm plot in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. Was it shot down? Caught in a net? Zapped by a laser? Nope, nope, and nope. Its unexpected attacker, to the internet’s surprise, was another Mavic. This first-of-its-kind combat test renders drone proliferation in armed conflict practically inevitable.

If you’re interested in cinematography, odds are you’ve heard of DJI. The Shenzhen, China-based firm has enabled amateurs and professionals alike to shoot incredible footage with stability, ease, and cost effectiveness that make helicopter-mounted cameras almost obsolete. Released in 2016, the Mavic Pro’s portability and $999 price tag kicked off DJI’s flagship line of consumer drones, which has since propelled it to possess a 70% market share in the sector.

On the other side of the spectrum are military drones. Notorious for their expanded use under President Obama, who authorized 542 strikes that killed an estimated 3797 people across the Middle East and North Africa, they have become a staple of the American military-industrial complex. Military drones have proven effective at ending lives. They’ve also proven expensive, with prices upwards of $200 million per unit expanding the military drone market to $11.73 billion in 2022.

Using drones in warfare and spy operations is nothing new; neither are their uses in film, land surveying, and agriculture. Even the Birds Aren’t Real movement, often ridiculed for its claims that birds are government surveillance drones, is on to something. In 2018, news broke that over 30 Chinese government and military agencies had been using bird drones to spy on civilians, with Computer Network reporting that “They’re called Doves and they don’t come in peace.”

In the Ukraine war, both sides use small, hard-to-detect DJI consumer drones to scout enemy positions and plan ambushes. Military reconnaissance drones that are much cheaper than combat drones still cost upwards of $35,000. The $2049 price tag of DJI’s Mavic 3, their most expensive Mavic, makes it a much more appealing buy than a similar military drone despite sacrifices in range and battery life.

Reports have shown Ukrainian troops flying the drones to direct precise artillery fire, using them as reconnaissance units next to larger grenade-dropping drones, and modifying them with thermal images to find Russian targets in dense forests and at night. To the dismay of DJI, which has banned sales of their drones to Russia and Ukraine because they “absolutely deplore any use of [their] products to cause harm,” these tactics have been commonplace for months.

Unlike reconnaissance and DJI’s approved applications, drone dogfighting is new. On Oct. 13, 2022, Ukrainian broadcaster and activist Serhiy Prytula tweeted the first known video of this type of military engagement. The clip, recorded on a Ukrainian Mavic drone, shows an unsuspecting Russian drone that the Ukrainian operator sneaks up on and collides with from behind. As the Russian drone’s propeller breaks and it starts to tumble from the sky, the footage shows that it, too, is a DJI Mavic. Now that Ukraine has demonstrated the previously unrealized offensive capabilities of small drones through aerial ramming, warzones are sure to see dramatic increases in the tactic’s prevalence.

After researching for this article, I couldn’t help but wonder what owners of DJI drones who use them peacefully would think of their military applications. Would they have ethical or moral objections? Ben Curry ’21, a photographer-filmmaker who uses a DJI Mavic for his work, gave me some clarity on the matter: “It makes sense why it would be used in warfare. It’s incredibly cost-efficient. You don’t have to risk a human life. […] If I was in warfare, I probably would use my drone.”

Russia and Ukraine seem to agree with Ben. DJI’s ban on sales to the two countries has not amounted to much; the Russian military has found ways around the ban and Ukrainian forces receive many of their drones through donations from civilians and foreigners. While it may be against DJI’s code of ethics, Ukraine’s defense is a righteous use of consumer drones. Technological advances are often points of no return; once established, there is no going back. Like many technologies, drones are tools and the ethical debate surrounding them should focus on how they are used, not whether they should exist.  

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