Russia improves suicide UAVs to search and destroy at night

Russia installed thermal imaging equipment for the Gortenzia suicide UAV to find and destroy targets at night, but this innovative measure raises doubts about its effectiveness.

Gortenzia Design Studio in St. Petersburg, Russia, earlier this week announced the small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) model Gortenzia equipped with thermal imaging equipment to be able to perform night missions on the Ukrainian battlefield.

This design studio has mass-produced UAV Gortenzia since 2022 and delivered more than 2,500 units to the Russian military. This UAV has a payload of 2-3.5 kg and flies continuously for 6-8 minutes with a full load or 30 minutes without load; an effective combat radius is 7 km and can be expanded if using a transponder.

“We are constantly refining Gortenzia’s control system and additional modules to increase combat effectiveness,” the Gortenzia design department said when talking about the thermal imaging device mounted on this UAV.

Forbes editor David Ax commented that UAVs and thermal imaging equipment “have become a game-changing factor in the Russia-Ukraine conflict” because this equipment allows soldiers to detect and identify targets in shadow. Dark or obscured by dust and smoke.

However, Ax believes that installing a thermal imaging camera on a small suicide UAV seems to be an “inappropriate” move because both warring sides have a serious shortage of this modern equipment.

Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian-made UAVs, said that equipping small UAVs with thermal cameras is not a simple problem. Small UAV models can record 4K video at 60 frames per second, while 2K and 1080p video are common features. Meanwhile, thermal imaging devices provide much lower-resolution images.

A thermal imaging device with a resolution of 206×156 pixels costing less than 200 USD cannot observe objects hundreds of meters away. Devices with a resolution of 320×240 pixels are twice as expensive, but it is difficult to distinguish between trucks and tanks in the dark.

Suicide UAVs require good-quality video and high transmission speed for the operator to avoid obstacles or successfully dive into the target. Meanwhile, images transmitted from cheap thermal imaging devices often do not meet this criterion.

Ukraine has a group that specializes in producing more than 1,500 UAVs for the country’s military each month at a price of 340-462 USD/unit. However, the group does not prioritize equipping the UAV with thermal imaging equipment.

“Ukrainian businesses own all this type of technology and can produce UAVs with thermal cameras. However, price is the main issue,” said a group member. “A first-person UAV normally costs $500, while a similar model with a thermal imaging device will cost about $2,500.”

Russia improves suicide UAVs to search and destroy at night

UAV Gortenzia in a photo released on October 3. Photo: Gortenzia Design Studio

Price becomes the biggest difference when comparing civilian UAVs converted into weapons and military suicide UAVs like the US-made SwitchBlade 300.

SwitchBlade 300 is similar in size to a small UAV, capable of recording images day and night, locking on targets and many other features. However, the SwitchBlade 300 UAV costs about 50,000 USD and can only be used for a single attack.

“Installing thermal imaging equipment on large UAVs that cost tens of thousands of dollars and can be used many times will make more sense,” Ax commented. “Heavy armed UAVs equipped with thermal imaging equipment are widely used in Ukraine at night because if they operate during the day, they are easy to detect because they make loud noise.”

Ax believes that barriers to the country’s military procurement policy could prevent Russia from producing a series of small UAVs carrying thermal imaging equipment, which is very expensive.

Budgeting for large quantities of thermal imaging equipment, whether cheap imported or more expensive Russian-made models, can be challenging without a supply contract for the country’s military.

“Warring parties may be less likely to use UAVs with thermal imaging equipment in the near future. However, as thermal imaging technology develops and costs come down, we will see more UAVs of this type appear,” Ax commented.