REPORTS
ANALYTICS
INVESTIGATIONS
  • USD90.19
  • EUR97.90
  • OIL81.73
DONATEРусский
  • 1101

Many of the drones Russia uses for combat missions, aerial strikes, and surveillance in its full-scale war against Ukraine were developed domestically. The creators of unmanned aerial platforms such as the Privet-82, Bumerang, Upyr, Sibiryachok, Piranya, Gortenzia, Ovod, and Veles are private individuals, who often communicate through anonymous Telegram bots and give incognito interviews to propaganda outlets — without revealing their faces. However, The Insider has discovered that some of Russia’s drone manufacturers do not shun publicity, instead attempting to use their deadly creations to burnish their images as successful, innovative entrepreneurs. Members of this latter group hail from Skolkovo — Russia’s state-managed attempt to create a domestic hub of technical innovation — and even from Silicon Valley itself. They manage U.S.-based entities that continue to operate within the official confines of the law. But there is yet another catch: many of their “original inventions,” have turned out to be toys freely available on AliExpress.

Content
  • A boomerang in the hand is worth a taxi drone in the bush

  • A Siberian kid from China

  • Frost and blizzard by the Orenburg butcher

  • Upyr-88: a ghoul from the Urals

  • A piranha from out of nowhere

  • A pseudo patriot

RU

A boomerang in the hand is worth a taxi drone in the bush

Russian national Alexander Atamanov is an experienced startup entrepreneur who is passionate about innovation and unmanned transportation systems. He has registered several patents for mechanisms that can be used in driverless taxis. Furthermore, Atamanov managed to pique the interest of civilian journalists and military thinkers with his idea for a grenade launcher carried by a robotic dog — a dystopian take on Boston Dynamics developments. Atamanov’s company, Intellekt Mashin, presented a prototype at Russia’s Army 2022 forum, causing quite a splash in the domestic media. However, upon closer inspection, the “dog” with a fake grenade launcher strapped to its back turned out to be a toy manufactured by the Chinese company Unitree Robotics, which sells its products on AliExpress. To disguise its origins, Atamanov's engineers had dressed the “dog” in a black leotard that really did appear to have been the result of their own handiwork.

Atamanov's lifelong dream, however, was not to create robotic attack dogs, but an airborne motorcycle — a kind of taxi drone. To that end, he founded two companies in 2016: California-based Hoversurf Inc., and Russian OKB Khover (originally called OKB Gruzovyie Drony — literally “OKB Cargo Drones”). His Californian entity secured several hundred thousand dollars in investment from Starta Capital and Russian entrepreneurs, and in 2019, Atamanov “sold” the flying motorcycle concept to the Dubai police.

Alexander Atamanov poses next to a prototype hoverbike, 2018
Alexander Atamanov poses next to a prototype hoverbike, 2018
Source: Facebook

However, his flying bike endeavor appears to have run into a few metaphorical bumps in the road. In 2020, Atamanov put his stake in Hoversurf up for sale on the Russian classifieds platform Avito for approximately $1 million. As he told Vedomosti, most of the company's revenue came from selling small drones and drone components.

Atamanov presents himself as a successful, visionary entrepreneur operating out of both Skolkovo and Silicon Valley. He has not commented in any way on Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine and, the robotic dog grenade launcher project aside, does not market his companies’ creations as weapons.

Yet, in an attempt to establish a cooperative relationship with the Russian defense industry, Atamanov founded a new company, Intellekt Mashin, followed by another entity, the Atamanov Design Bureau. The activities of the former became public knowledge by chance in September 2023, when Chukotka Governor Vladislav Kuznetsov boasted that a local vocational school had assembled the first 100 quadcopters “for our fighters,” and a local news agency reported that the drones had been assembled under license from Atamanov’s Intellekt Mashin.

Drones for the Russian military assembled in Chukotka
Drones for the Russian military assembled in Chukotka
Source: Vladislav Kuznetsov, Telegram
A batch of drones assembled in Chukotka (left). The photo was published on the Telegram channel of Chukotka governor Vladislav Kuznetsov. The logo on the boxes matches the trademark registered by the Atamanov Design Bureau with Rospatent in 2023 (right)
A batch of drones assembled in Chukotka (left). The photo was published on the Telegram channel of Chukotka governor Vladislav Kuznetsov. The logo on the boxes matches the trademark registered by the Atamanov Design Bureau with Rospatent in 2023 (right)

The drones for the army were named “Bumerang” (“boomerang”). The Chukotka governor also presented branded boxes featuring the Intellekt Mashin logo and corporate font. These images enabled The Insider to link the drones directly to Atamanov, since the logo was identical to the one Rospatent registered in 2023 at the request of the Atamanov Design Bureau. The innovative entrepreneur decided to save money on graphic design and simply took a free picture from the icon stock. Moreover, according to The Insider's source, the Moscow warehouse where Bumerang drones are assembled also contains Hoversurf Inc. boxes with Alexander Atamanov's personal phone number on a sticker.

The Russian Defense Ministry commented on the use of Bumerang drones on the frontline back in March 2023. “Four propellers, four small engines, a massive battery pack, and the main element of this kamikaze drone: a special container filled with submunitions, stuffed with plastic explosives, and fitted with a fuse. An anti-drone gun is useless against it,” the ministry wrote on its website. The composition of the new drone was detailed a few weeks later by Ukrainian volunteer Yuriy Abdula, who had managed to get his hands on a captured Bumerang.

The Bumerang drone
The Bumerang drone
Source: Yuriy Abdula, Facebook

“It’s made from mud and straw, like everything else in Russia. The problem is that no sanctions in the world can stop their manufacture,” Abdula commented on the design of the drone. Its body is made of widely available composite epoxy materials, and its design features easily imported components: battery, camera, video transmitter, electric motors, antenna, and receiver.

A Siberian kid from China

Unlike Alexander Atamanov, Nikita Shulpin, a native of St. Petersburg, had no illusions about being a visionary or creating futuristic devices. A passionate photographer, Shulpin ran a one-man outfit called Lyumos, which he founded in 2016 to sell photo equipment and small drones capable of carrying a camera. But when major quadcopter manufacturer DJI withdrew from the Russian market in 2022, Shulpin's partnerships with suppliers of light drone components boosted his company's turnover and profits threefold in less than a year. As The Insider learned, while Shulpin imported $303,000 worth of equipment to Russia in all of 2021, by 2023 his company was bringing in close to $21.6 million worth.

While Shulpin imported $303,000 worth of equipment to Russia in all of 2021, in 2022 the volume more than tripled, and in 2023 the figure was almost $21.6 million

How did Shulpin, an ordinary St. Petersburg resident, manage to expand his customer base for drone assembly equipment so significantly? He may have leveraged a new acquaintance: Igor Afanasyev, CEO of the Skolkovo-based Gaskar Group. In August 2023, Afanasyev transferred a 25% stake in TD AIK — a Skolkovo-based company that is not part of the Gaskar Group — to Shulpin. Around the same time, Shulpin's company dramatically increased imports of drone parts from China, primarily from manufacturers Wenzhou Tarot Aviation Technology Co., Jiangxi Xintuo Enterprise Co., and Flash Hobby Technology Co.

Afanasyev’s Gaskar Group positions itself as a provider of innovative business solutions, including those connected with the use of drones. Its lineup features two Pelican quadcopters and the HIVE droneport — an automatic drone launch station. However, the history section on the company’s website only covers the period up to 2022. Therefore, it does not mention the fate of the Sibiryachok — “Siberian kid” — which was released in 2023 and later disappeared from the website after the “wind-resistant” quadcopter was criticized by several Russian pro-war correspondents, who noted its poor quality and inflated price while dismissing the drone as a product of “low-grade 3D printing.”

An archived copy of the Gaskar Group website dated June 10, 2023. From left to right: Sibiryachok, Pelican Mini, Pelican
An archived copy of the Gaskar Group website dated June 10, 2023. From left to right: Sibiryachok, Pelican Mini, Pelican

The Telegram channel URAL DRONE HUB published photos of the Sibiryachok, along with a user manual supplied by the military. Some of its components are easily recognizable AliExpress merchandise: SIYI cameras, Skydroid control systems, and Tarot motors. Incidentally, Nikita Shulpin's company also imported these parts to Russia. Moreover, Shulpin did not begin importing these articles until mid-2023, when he developed a sudden interest in such equipment. Andrei Medvedev, an employee of state-owned media holding VGTRK, wrote on Telegram that the manufacturer had admitted several of the drone’s components had indeed come from China but insisted that its software had been developed in Russia.

The controller, the transmitter, and other Sibiryachok components are available on AliExpress
The controller, the transmitter, and other Sibiryachok components are available on AliExpress

Since Nikita Shulpin and his company do not retail drone parts or drones assembled in-house, the only explanation for the massive shipments of components is the need to supply Gaskar Group. This is further evidenced by the fact that Shulpin’s company's actual revenues — which theoretically ought to at least cover the cost of the imported parts — fluctuate between one-third and one-half of the total amount spent on the Chinese-made components. Notably, The Insider found that Gaskar Group does not import parts for its drones, which also suggests the deliveries are likely handled by CEO Afanasyev's other company — in which Shulpin has a stake.

On June 22, 2023, one week after the scandal broke regarding the low quality of the Sibiryachok drone, the Telegram channel SHOT published a photo of a drone similar to the Sibiryachok, reporting that it had crashed near the building of the Center for Scientific and Technical Information of the Russian Ministry of Energy in the Moscow region.

Gaskar has not exactly been shy about its connections to the Russian military. At the Army 2023 forum outside of Moscow, the company displayed a quadrocopter designer tool called “Klever.Gaskar Code.” Presenting a product positioned as an educational construction set for children at a military fair was a curious choice.

Presenting a product positioned as an educational construction set for children at a military fair was a curious choice

The Insider has submitted multiple inquiries to Gaskar Group's offices and partners, which include Iowa State University (U.S.).

Frost and blizzard by the Orenburg butcher

Andrei Terekhov, a small-time businessman from the southwestern Russian city of Orenburg, is neither an engineer nor an inventor. In 2023, he headed a non-profit organization called Center for Integrated Support, which has been lauded by Kremlin propaganda. Ostensibly, the center used a “facility outside Orenburg” to assemble drones based on some form of local «Orenburg know-how.” The drones were branded Stuzha (“frost”) and Vyuga (“blizzard”). Terekhov also claimed to have lowered the production cost of a reconnaissance drone to $325, as opposed to the $850 pricetag for a Chinese analog.

Local media proudly reported that parts for the drones were produced locally, (though they only cited the UAV bodies as an example). However, in the photos of a downed Stuzha, we discerned the label CADDXFPV — a well-known Shenzheh-based supplier of cameras and other drone parts. Media reports also suggested that Terekhov could produce up to 1,000 drones per month, and that Orenburg cadets have trained using them.

As the website of Kremlin-backed “volunteer” movement “People’s Front” noted in Sept. 2023, the technical aspect of drone manufacturing could be supervised by other local companies, such as Mikhail Ivanov's Firma OrenKlip and OK-Inzhiniring Design Bureau. Ivanov personally handed over a “professional” (albeit imported) drone to the Russian military. However, the main area of Ivanov's business interests is meat.

The caption on the drone reads: “Stuzha, Orenburg”
The caption on the drone reads: “Stuzha, Orenburg”

According to Ukrainian experts who have examined a downed Stuzha, “its assembly quality is much higher than that of the Bumerang. Judging by its configuration and materials, it resembles an oversized Bumerang — one assembled by a skilled pair of hands. That is, of course, if the words ‘quality’ and 'skilled’ even apply to this piece of nonsense.”

Upyr-88: a ghoul from the Urals

Yekaterinburg resident Vladimir Tkachuk was born in 1991. At the age of 18, he faced charges connected with the alleged distribution of child pornography and later worked as a real estate agent and a clerk in a chain of private clinics. In his leisure time, Tkachuk hung out in nationalist online communities under the username “Yebok1488” — ‘1488’ being a reference to white supremacist ideology — and administered a public group “Obsessed with War” on the social network VKontakte. In 2020, the group even earned a shout-out from Russia’s Ministry of Defense as one of the best military communities on the Russian social network.

The idea of developing a military drone occurred to Tkachuk and his fellow contributors on VKontakte and Telegram back in 2020. In 2022-2023, he and his associates raised sufficient funds to build a workshop, where they assembled a type of UAV branded as Upyr (“ghoul”). The Kremlin-controlled news agency TASS has dubbed Tkachuk's project “a Russian startup of the special military operation era,” and the blogger himself named his enterprise Uraldronzavod (“the Ural drone plant”), a play on the name of the famous “Uravagonzavod” tank factory. Despite the fact that the workshop was not in operation for the entirety of 2023, the company still showed an annual revenue of $38,890 and even closed the year with a small profit.

Upyr drones
Upyr drones
Screenshot from a video in the Telegram channel “Obsessed with the Z War”

Judging by the videos Tkachuk and other “war correspondents” posted from the shop floor, most of the Upyr’s frame is 3D printed. In a TASS report, several local students shared their experience of assembling the kamikaze drones. They were promised a future contract with the Defense Ministry — one with an unclear timeline and an undefined scope of work.

In an article portraying the drone workshop as a “people’s” startup, a TASS correspondent wrote: “As a product, an FPV-drone is great because it promotes itself. Thus, footage of a successful combat operation from the operator's goggles makes for an excellent commercial that gathers large audiences on social media and Telegram.” What sort of potential buyer might be enticed to purchase a kamikaze drone after seeing the “promo” of one killing Ukrainian soldiers, the reporter does not specify.

The Insider has not been able to establish the details of the Upyr drone component supply chain. According to Tkachuk, the drone’s production has been localized by up to 60% as of March 2024. As he bragged to the Tsargrad television channel, a shortage of video transmitters on the commercial market led his team to learn how to make their own using “Russian chips and circuit boards.” Russia’s Ministry of Defense is allegedly already procuring drones of the new model.

A piranha from out of nowhere

Russian “war correspondents” and propagandistic publications have compared Upyr to another Russian drone: the Piranya (“piranha”), which was unveiled to the general public in March 2024. As the mainstream newspaper Izvestia writes, the drone, which was allegedly the first to destroy a U.S.-made Abrams tank, is manufactured by firm SKB Piranya in the western Russian city of Ulyanovsk. Since last winter, the bureau has delivered more than 8,000 such drones to the front. Following this statement, the makers of the Upyr drone rushed to announce that the “ghoul” had also destroyed an Abrams.

The Piranya drone
The Piranya drone
Source: Reporter73, YouTube

According to Russia’s commercial register, SKB Piranya was co-founded in September 2023 by Ulyanovsk residents Olga Korchagina and Pavel Chernyshov. Chernyshov, 39, is a civilian, neither an engineer nor a programmer. Until late 2022, he engaged in forex trading, running an Instagram account and several Telegram channels under the name “Cryptomoneybro” and signaling his subscribers when to sell and buy currencies. There is no information on how he came up with the idea of designing kamikaze drones, but in mid-2023 he changed his Telegram user name, replacing “crypto” with “fpv,” set the caption “piranha” as his user avatar, and joined the chat rooms of Autel drone owners and the “ZV Ulyanovsk Movement.”

Pavel Chernyshov changed his user pic on Telegram
Pavel Chernyshov changed his user pic on Telegram

As for Olga Korchagina, who nominally owns a large stake in SKB Piranya, available information from leaked databases suggests that she is nothing more than a front person, registered as a nominal co-owner in exchange for a few hundred dollars. The phones displayed on Piranya's official website and its ads on the classifieds platform Avito are not used by real people either.

The components used in Piranya drones and their origins are unknown, but the company’s statements in the press and on its Telegram channel suggest that it assembles thousands of drones a month and delivers them to the front. The drone has even been promoted by Ulyanovsk governor Alexei Russkikh, who has enrolled the region in a national project aimed at the development of unmanned aircraft systems in 2024.

A pseudo patriot

In terms of their relative sophistication, drones like Upyr, Piranya, Sibiryachok, and Bumerang are made “from mud and straw.” As a result, manufacturers can save on production costs while flying under the radar of foreign customs controls. However, some Russian companies, in an attempt to prove their worth to the Ministry of Defense, simply put a new brand on someone else's equipment. Aside from Alexander Atamanov's robot dog, this practice was true of the Patriot K30T drone, presented at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2023 by Astracom as a potential piece of kit “for Russia's army.” Astracom is an official distributor of Chinese Autel EVO drones and makes no secret of it. But the Patriot K30T, an identical twin of the EVO II Pro V3 model, has a separate website, where “Russia’s very own” drone is positioned as a reconnaissance and public safety tool.

 The Patriot K30T is an identical twin of the Autel EVO II Pro V3 model, which Astracom also sells as a “public safety solution”
The Patriot K30T is an identical twin of the Autel EVO II Pro V3 model, which Astracom also sells as a “public safety solution”
Screenshots from the Patriot website and Astracom’s presentation

However, it appears that Astracom has yet to receive orders for the “pseudo-patriot,” and very few of its drones were imported into Russia in 2022-2023.

Subscribe to our weekly digest

К сожалению, браузер, которым вы пользуйтесь, устарел и не позволяет корректно отображать сайт. Пожалуйста, установите любой из современных браузеров, например:

Google Chrome Firefox Safari