When the war came to Sergiy Sotnychenko’s neighborhood in March 2022, he found himself carrying out daily performances for the drones that hummed constantly overhead. Desperate to prove that he wasn’t a combatant, he put on an orange hoodie which, out of all the clothing he owned, seemed least likely to be mistaken for military fatigues. He tried to show the drones he was carrying out innocent activities, like planting onions. Sometimes he would wave.
That March was a nightmarishly violent month for Kyiv’s outskirts, including Irpin, where Sotnychenko lives, but there were moments when he allowed himself to feel comforted by the drones flying above. He imagined the Ukrainian army watching his small acts of resistance. “I felt reassured because I felt that I wanted to show them that we are holding out,” he says, speaking through a translator provided by the Museum of Civilian Voices, a project documenting ordinary people’s experience of the conflict in Ukraine.
But when Sotnychenko watched a Russian armored personnel vehicle drive through Irpin, shooting indiscriminately at the houses around him, he realized there was no way the drones were on his side. “I started hiding from all drones,” he says. “Sometimes I hid under trees or behind the branches. Sometimes, I managed to escape into my basement.” When a drone appeared above Sotnychenko and his 77-year-old mother as they tried to escape Irpin, they ran from it, certain it would kill them.
The way Sotnychenko’s perception of drones was transformed over that month, from ally to enemy, echoes a shift that has taken place for civilians across Ukraine. At the start of the war, Turkish-made Bayraktar drones became a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance. But as the war edged toward its second year, Ukraine’s successes were eclipsed by Russian bombardments of Iranian-made kamikaze drones, used to target energy infrastructure and plunge parts of the country into darkness.
The war in Ukraine is the first large-scale conflict to see widespread use of drones on both sides. That has made it a crucible of innovation, as both invader and defender experiment and refine their technologies and tactics. But experts now caution that the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles is driving militaries—in Ukraine and beyond—to hand over more and more control to artificial intelligence, and ultimately moving toward systems that can operate on the battlefield without human involvement.
“The massive use of drones in the war in Ukraine is pushing for more AI-guided weapon systems,” says Wim Zwijnenburg, project leader in humanitarian disarmament at PAX, a Dutch organization that campaigns to end armed violence. This, he warns, would create a slippery slope. “Justification for defensive purposes can easily change into offensive use when the genie is out of the bottle.”
In the early days of Russia’s invasion, drones were mostly used as surveillance tools, like the ones Sotnychenko saw above Irpin. Russian forces used Orlan-10 fixed-wing drones to monitor troop movements and assess artillery damage. But it was Ukraine’s use of the Bayraktar TB2, made by the Turkish company Baykar, that transformed public perceptions of drone warfare.