At first glance, this video might not seem to show anything special. By now, any observer of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has certainly seen dozens, if not hundreds, of videos showing quadcopter drones dropping either grenades or makeshift bombs on unsuspecting troops. From the Ukrainian side, we’ve also seen how Russian forces, thinking they were safe under the cover of darkness, were picked off by drones using thermal imagery.
That’s part of what’s happening here. The two images in the video show side by side views of the same drone and the same bomb being dropped. The difference is that this video was shot in the day. Even in well-lighted conditions, the troops in the normal camera are all but invisible, obscured by camo and by vegetation. However, those same troops might as well be walking naked across a basketball court when it comes to the thermal view. Those men are dead because a thermal camera works both in the day and the night to not just penetrate darkness, but remove the value for much of what normally would be considered good cover.
Comment: My introduction to thermal imagery was as an ARTEP evaluator to a mech infantry battalion on Fort Benning between my Infantry Officer Advanced Course and the Special Forces Officers Course. Rather than burning up leave, officers were assigned various duties between courses. As an evaluator, I was accompanying a dismounted assault force as they made their way silently through a swamp on a moonless night. I was confident we were undetected. The assault went as planned, but during the hot wash we were shown the film from a circling MC-130. Thermal imagery clearly showed each each cold, wet soldier as we made our way silently through the swamp. If that MC-130 wanted to destroy our assault force, it could have done so easily. We would have never know what hit us. That lesson stuck with me and shaped my planning for conducting UW far behind the lines in Eastern Europe when I was with 10th SFG(A).
There aren’t many MC-130s, but drones with thermal imagery capabilities are legion in Ukraine. The short video above appears to be the work of a Chinese-made DJI Mavic-3T drone. Similar dual view videos are shown on the DJI website. It’s a standard feature on this drone model that is easily purchased by Ukrainians and Ukrainian supporters online. I wonder if Putin brought up this widespread availability of Chinese dual use technology to the Ukrainian Army during Xi’s recent visit to Moscow. Apparently Xi’s definition of “no limits” applies to who can but DJI drones as well as to his partnership with Putin.
And DJI is not the only source of drones. There are now many manufacturers of similar drone technology in the world. Even Ukraine has a fairly robust local drone industry. Additionally, Ukraine has been developing software, doctrine and sufficient pilots to take advantage of these drones since 2014. Undoubtedly they are stockpiling swarms of drone for the coming offensive.