“The importance of thermal cameras on drones”

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.



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27 Responses to “The importance of thermal cameras on drones”

  1. LeaNder says:

    TTG, yesterday I stumbled across similar videos and wondered … It was a bit more close. You could see soldiers in the trenches, trying to get away and not making it. Apparently it helps counting the dead Russians. There are many that love to watch that stuff. And then donate:
    Here is Tonya’s Austin Texas Link. You can donate too.

    thanks, interesting:
    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).

    Poland? Beyond? Ukraine too?

  2. Whitewall says:

    “Undoubtedly they are stockpiling swarms of drone for the coming offensive.”
    All of a sudden there are stories plastered all over our media about a serious info leak out of the Pentagon regarding Ukrainian tactics in this coming offensive. Somehow I just can’t believe this convenient bit of oddly timed info. Evidently the mud is drying quickly over there.

  3. Fred says:

    So control of the air over the combat area is still essential as air has yet another tool to use in suppressing ground forces. What anti-drone or anti-aircraft improvements have we made in the last few decades? What percentage of that are man-portable, and of course, don’t bankrupt the Republic trying to deploy them?

    • TTG says:


      There are a number of Western and Russian man-portable EW systems in use by both sides. There are also smaller, ground-mounted radar and jamming systems. Both sides are also falling back on the older tactics of employing air guards and training infantry to take on low flying aircraft and, of course, drones. A lot of this is fairly cheap as military equipment goes, but defense companies are undoubtedly developing more expensive solutions. I’ve seen videos of Ukrainian drones taking out Russian drones that were reminiscent of the early days of aerial combat in WWI.

  4. Chrisitan Chuba says:

    And we knew this in 1982, since the movie Predator 🙂
    I recall seeing the military use thermal reflective blankets to hide from manually operated infrared detection even before drones.

    Infrared cameras are as small and cheap as conventional cameras, it’s an obvious choice for drones. We also have massive amount of CPU that fits in a tiny space and only uses a fraction of the power required in the 80’s. So now you have a cheap thing that flies, can see in multiple domains, and plenty of CPU to process the data.

    I do not believe any modern military is even close to using drones to their fullest potential. In the corporate world, ‘disruptive technology’.

  5. Fourth and Long says:

    The Guardian has little credibility with me, but that’s personal. Since this appeared today and is on topic – here’s a link.

    They’re starting to die’: fears Ukraine’s drone supremacy may soon be over
    Frontline drone operators say Russia is close to countering their most popular models – setting off a race to find replacements.

  6. Leith says:

    TTG –

    A Guardian article is saying those Chinese DJI drones may be useless shortly. Got to wonder if Xi had DJI give RosTec or its EW subsidiary KRET info on how to specifically jam or spoof DJI comm links?
    Ukraine has already been looking for replacements.

    There are other examples of Ukraine’s military owning the night:
    Brooklyn based NightRide Thermal Inc has been supplying a few of their systems to Ukrainian docs & medics for night ambulance medevacs for half a year or more. Bad or damaged secondary roads and now General Mud means that those ambulances had to travel slowly with headlights on, making them prime targets for attack. There is an effort now to expand that few to many thanks to a Cal based non-profit.

    But I would bet dollars to donuts that Ukraine is also using thermal cameras in other roles: Certainly the cross river night raid on Nova Khakovka back in January used some. – Plus Ukrainian spetsnaz use of the night during the Sep-Oct 2022 Kharkiv counteroffensive. – Nighttime resupply convoys to Bakhmut et al. – The April 2022 nightime attack on an oil storage facility in Belgorod by two Ukrainian Mi-24s.

    • TTG says:

      Leith and F&L,

      China sells DJI drones to all buyers. They also sell software for monitoring those drones. They do so to maintain their market share and to make a buck. Nothing beyond that. Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka has hacked the DJI software to disable that monitoring capability. Obviously, those hacks have not gotten to all Ukrainian drones. Signal jamming and GPS jamming are anti-drone measures independent of DJI hardware and software.

      • Leith says:

        TTG –

        Hacking of DJI software is a good first step. But there are workarounds, both civilian and military. DJI has the civilian platform called AeroScope. They originally built the system for law enforcement, security agencies, and civilian air traffic control folks to protect government facilities and airports. It uses both h/w and s/w as a comprehensive drone detection system. It can also reportedly suss out not only the location of the drone but also the location of the drone pilot. Not just for DJI drones, but also many other of the civilian drones on the market.

        Xi has militarized versions, just as we have.

        I’m not confident that Aerorozvidka’s hacking has neutralized AeroScope. Nor would it be capable of neutralizing a MIL-version if Xi has given Putin a militarized model.

        BTW – You are right that signal jamming and GPS jamming are independent of DJI hardware and software. Although I don’t think spoofing attacks can be considered that way. Do Russkii EW assets in occupied Ukraine have that capability? I have no clue, but it’s a possibility.

        • TTG says:


          It’s the Aeroscope capability that Aerorozvidka’s coders hacked. Unless it’s capability is hard coded into the chips, I’m confident that Ukrainian coders could decompile the code and reprogram in ML if required. If the Ukrainian’s DJI drones and controllers have been hacked and fixed, I don’t see how Aeroscope, even a mil version, can track those drones any better than another company’s commercial drones. Of course, if Aeroscope doesn’t rely on any specific signals from drones, all bets are off. I would also count on both sides having some spoofing capability. If the Russians didn’t develop it, the Iranians have. And I know the Ukrainians have it.

        • TTG says:


          You’ve peaked my interest in learning how to combat AeroScope. Here’s a year old video from a Ukrainian drone operator describing tactics and techniques used to avoid getting blown up.


          I also found a how-to video about disabling DJI Drone ID with a free software hack available on GitHub. Unfortunately, this is not enough to thwart AeroScope. But the idea is there. It’s in the software. Another entry in a drone hacking board states, “Not sure if you use Telegram but there is a lot of good info on there. It is said the Ukrainians have a hack to outsmart the Aeroscope and will not give any information on how it is done. They are also using counter-drone equipment to bag home two russian Mavic-3 drones.”


          And here’s a teardown of an AeroScope by some Brit techno-geek that shows the various radio receiver chips and states that all the data interpretation was done in software. I think the real solution is some kind of encryption of the signal between the drone and the operator. Military grade drones must have this. Giving this to commercial drones should be fairly easy for a decent coder. I worked with quite a few techo-geeks who did tougher hacks before their coffee got cold.


        • Leith says:

          TTG –

          If AeroScope has some software programs within DJI drones then I’m sure that hackers could get to it and neutralize it. But I don’t understand how they could hack AeroScope software in its separate, ground-based platform? At 80 years young I’m a bit green or wet behind the ears on hacking. Maybe they have closed off entry ports or plug-ins or extensions or whatever they’re called within the drone’s software to limit the ground based AeroScope access? If that’s the case then my suggestion of spoofing is incorrect as there would be no means to insert false or corrupt or scrambled data.

          But I don’t understand what difference that makes since the AeroScope ground system does not seem to need that access. It tracks and locates drones via the radio channels they use. Reportedly it can track other non-DJI drones. At least all those that use freqs allocated internationally.

          Here is a different link to AeroScope. I’m sure there are more somewhere online.

          • TTG says:


            “It tracks and locates drones via the radio channels they use. Reportedly it can track other non-DJI drones. At least all those that use freqs allocated internationally.”

            That’s the point. The radio link between the drone and the operator is necessary and the interception of that traffic by AeroScope can’t be prevented. But that intercepted traffic has to be readable to the AeroScope software. Encryption of the drone-operator traffic would mean AeroScope would collect encrypted traffic unintelligible to AeroScope’s software. It’s the same principle as the Navajo code talkers.

            Firmware updates on DJI drones do limit the ability to shut off Remote ID, but the firmware is not really firmware. It is an app so it can be switched to an earlier, more hackable version of the firmware. That’s a necessary precondition for installing that “CIA Jeep Doors” software to disable Remote ID.

    • Whitewall says:

      Either this leak is the most elaborate ‘fake out’ in a generation or just more evidence that Washington can’t be trusted no matter what when it comes to national security. If this info is true and if I was deployed in intelligence work anywhere in the world, I would return home and throw my credentials in somebody’s face as I resigned. The Pentagon is in dire need of a thorough enema.

    • Al says:

      Certainly am Curious, as to validity of leak. Ukraine comes off as being at last bullet in chamber.

      • Fourth and Long says:

        Look for self consistency or lack thereof. For example – if within the leaked materials you find reports of multiple extensive strikes planned in the near future all across the front AND reports of APU being severely depleted regarding supplies – would the two go together? Some analysts think the entire set of leaks has one purpose – lobbying for more aid $ for Ukraine. Others think they serve to promote overconfidence within the Russian ranks. A good detective might try to work backward from the gaming server where the docs appeared. Another detective might suspect that is a misdirection.

        • Whitewall says:

          Thank you. The ending of the ‘muddy season’ is bringing a strange brew of ‘news bots’ flying in all directions.

  7. cobo says:

    During Braveshield XV at Eglin Airforce Base the A Team that was running our group of 50 volunteers as indigenous ran a raid against the 24th Infantry’s base camp. On the way out we were running from a C-130, lighting heat tabs etc to try to throw them off. We were headed to a railroad bridge where we could get in the water under the bridge. We didn’t get there and ‘puff’ lit up the area under the trees where we stopped like daylight with its flood lights.

    How did you bake this into your operating plans? I assume stay close to your enemy and mix with the other warm things available.

    • TTG says:


      We took one of Mao’s dictums to heart. “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” In this case, we focused our planning and training on urban guerrilla operations. Being that this area of Poland was going to be crawling with the Buryats, Kazaks and others of the 2nd and 3rd strategic echelons, we also intended to wade in amongst them, in Polish uniforms to approach some of our targets.

  8. Al says:

    BBC reporting that the “leak” provides numbers of NATO Special Forces operating in Ukraine. Britts lead in nimber.

    • TTG says:


      Found the BBC article. Looks like liaison teams and probably some trainers. I knew damed well we had to have a liaison element in Kyiv. Someone has to pass all that surveillance data to the Ukrainian MOD.

      “According to the document, dated 23 March, the UK has the largest contingent of special forces in Ukraine (50), followed by fellow Nato states Latvia (17), France (15), the US (14) and the Netherlands (1).

    • LeaNder says:

      . Britts lead in nimber.
      Scholz tricked them into committing that many. 😉 Ask English Outsider.

      I find the WaPo article linked below about an ongoing Ukrainian recruitment campaign interesting. Among the trainers of the volunteers only newcomers to the Azov troop trainees is a ‘former’ (?) US Marine, “Frodo”, who tries to squeeze the US 3 month program into 1 month. Apparently they also read translation of US manuals.


      Slightly off-topic but highly recommendable for everyone that has followed the ups and down of US politics over the last two decades on Pat Lang’s SST and Turcopolier an article by Jacob Heilbrunn about “Elbridge Colby” who “Wants to Finish What Donald Trump Started. Meet the conservative intellectual seeking to remake the GOP’s foreign policy.”


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