Ukraine tech sector goes to war | FT Film
From the production of cheap battlefield drones to AI-powered missile detection, Ukrainian tech start-ups, IT workers and volunteers have been developing military tech and putting themselves on the front line of the war effort
Produced, filmed and edited by Joe Sinclair; Producers in Ukraine, Nikita Batozskyi and Inna Varenytsia; Additional filming by Inna Varenytsia and Petros Gioumpasis; Interpreting and translations by Tetiana Vodianytska, Nikita Batozskyi and Inna Varenytsia; Graphics by Russell Birkett; Commissioning editor Veronica Kan-Dapaah; additional footage and images from Reuters, Getty, Army of Drones, Ajax Systems, Oleksii Oleksiuk/UAV Khrushch drone project, Respeecher, Fevzi Ametov; Thanks to Igor Gubin
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We have to be innovative, man, because we would like to survive.
Technology is absolutely crucial to Ukraine's battlefield success.
People understand that they are not fighting only for their business, for their prosperity, they are fighting for the country.
The stake is all or nothing.
The tech sector here is a crucial part of Ukraine's economy. Even during the Russian invasion last year, it's the one sector that has continued to grow.
Well, the first thing the tech companies did was to carry on working for their customers. And that's been vitally important for Ukraine's economy, because other sources of income from exports of steel or grain have been choked off.
In terms of technology playing a role in the war, there really is no element of it where technology isn't at play.
And I think you're seeing technology workers with almost dual activities serving their customers, but also serving Ukraine's war effort at the same time.
The tech scene just scratched the surface in Ukraine. It's going to blow up. We have to support it. We have to show that, no matter what happens to us, we still are able to be operational. And that's exactly what I'm proud of.
We have this speech-to-speech AI voice cloning system that lets one actor perform, not just say things in the voice of another.
So what's happening...
...is my voice...
...is my voice...
...is going through this mic...
...and it gets converted on the fly...
...on the fly...
...to a different person's voice.
And I have...
And I have...
...not just a different gender...
But also a different accent.
...also a different accent.
We worked quite a lot with film studios, TV studios, video game creators. So that's the film In The Event of Moon Disaster we did together with MIT Centre for Advanced Virtuality. We created Nixon's speech that was written in case of Apollo 11 mission goes wrong.
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the Moon to explore in peace will stay on the Moon to rest in peace.
They were awarded with Emmy right before the full-blown invasion.
As a company we were preparing, so we had contingency plans. So we were delivering Hollywood projects. Like Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was delivered from bomb shelters.
We actually had several generators in order to supply office, and Starlinks in case internet connection would go down. As well as Starlinks were shipped to people who are not in Kyiv in other regions of Ukraine, and batteries, generators, all that stuff. Our drill was about 35 seconds to switch office to generators. Now is the best time to invest in Ukraine. Because those who were able to survive, no matter what, are exceptional.
Currently, I'm mainly involved with two military related projects. One of them is Zvuk.
Essentially, it's a distributed network of acoustic sensors that are built for air defence, for detecting airborne threats. I got connected through the engineering community to a team who was already by that time pretty far in terms of hardware.
We have installed 64 sensors as for now, and plan to instal a lot more. Here is the parabolic acoustic mirror that focuses the sound on the microphone. And a box with the single board computer. The sound is then processed by AI algorithms.
And because in Ukraine we have this huge territory which is really hard to cover with radar and air defence efficiently, there are always these gaps that need to be covered with something cheap.
The AI team needs a lot of samples to train the model.
Because we need to be recognising acoustic fingerprints of things...
...and picking them from a ton of noises like cars, birds, flies, thunder.
Pretty much any other entrepreneur that I know, they do have either a side project that's building drones, or they're donating a lot, or their business is donating. There's an argument that if you have a lot of experience and a skill to make an impact, technically it's probably what you should do.
If you haven't travelled to Ukraine and you have this idea of this place being a post-Soviet, eastern European backwater, you would arrive here shocked to find that a lot of the economy and the country itself is more digitally-focused than much of Europe and the United States.
The Ukrainian tech sector has moved beyond just servicing the needs of foreign IT companies. And you're beginning to see some real home-grown stars in the technology universe, like Grammarly.
The Ukrainian tech sector has grown immensely in the last 10 years. I would say especially following the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution, where there was this real burst of pride and patriotism. There was a lot of foreign investment that came in, a lot of young people who founded very successful tech companies.
To understand how Ukraine's tech sector has been so focused on helping the war effort and innovating for the Ukrainian military, you have to understand that this is a country that is really focusing on digitising its processes.
They see tech as a way of expanding their country's footprint, growing their country's economy. And I think the best possible example of that is probably Mykhailo Fedorov, who is Ukraine's deputy prime minister.
So Brave One is a government initiative that allows companies with innovative projects to pitch them straight to the government. The Ukrainian government hopes that this will give rise to a huge number of new military technologies that they can harness for the war effort in record time.
Enormous numbers of drones are being used in this war, by both sides, for all sorts of purposes... whether it's reconnaissance, or whether it's attack drones.
MARIA BERLINSKA: Very obvious that drones are a game-changer in this war.
What we've seen since the full-scale invasion in February last year is a sort of explosion of creativity in this industry. Ukraine does not have long-range missiles - or not very many long-range missiles - so it needs to try and build up its own force, if you like, of longer-range attack drones.
This plane has a modular construction to make more simple transportation. The overall time for preparing plane for flight is about two or three minutes.
This is a test explosion of this plane, the first explosion ever. Everything worked. After this test, we can be sure that the bottle test will be successful.
In 15 minutes we can make one wing, So it is very fast, very strong wing, and very lightweight. The total cost of the construction of the plane is about $200, with all carbon, expensive glues, form, and all CNC machining.
Many details have a lot of holes. That's why the plane, overall, weighs about just one kilo. They maybe don't look as Boeing or Airbus. But for a kamikaze plane it is very important the quality of the construction.
What does this alarm mean? Are you checking what's happening on your phone?
So what's going on?
It's a missile.
I mean, you're laughing. Ukrainians are so used to this now.
Right now, the number of the new products coming to the market is really huge.
Ukraine has every interest in developing its own drone industry. One, because this war may go on for a long time and it needs resilience in its supply chains. And secondly, because it thinks it could become a real player in the world in military technology. So this is a great way of nurturing that industry.
As a drone UA, our main focus is agriculture. When the full-scale invasion started, almost from day one I was mobilised. I served in the army. Drones are very important because, first of all, they save lives. Instead of sending soldiers to check what is going on in the battlefield, you just send the small drone.
You have drones that cost $500 or $600, and you can destroy a tank that cost $2mn or $3mn.
Without drones the war will have very, very different character, which is very close to what we saw in Bakhmut.
This war includes all these practises... from the first world war to contemporary war of 21st century. We have to be innovative, man. You know why? Because we would like to survive.
We are a part of women's veteran movement. You can see the engineers who work here every day creating drones for our army. It can be a big bird with payloads less than 8kg. kilogrammes. We can create small ones. And we are always in communication with guys from battlefield who have strong and useful stuff to win the war.
It is better to lose drones than lose people.
You might think that in a country at war where missiles are still falling down on the capital, people would be staying at home, they'd be in bomb shelters in their basements. But Ukrainians are extremely resilient. There's a defiance to going out, to populating restaurants, to essentially trying to live as normal as possible.
These events sometimes do get interrupted.
Attention, air raid alert.
The air alert app was downloaded more than 21mn times, and it's more than 5mn active users.
Traditionally, it was a siren on the street. There were no modern mechanism. And we deliver this modern mechanism within one or two weeks from the beginning of the war.
You can see there is no alerts in Kyiv now. Also, you can see the map of alerts. All the regions where alerts is on will be marked in red.
Our group of companies, we deliver the security systems for intrusion, protection system, flood alarms, fire alarms. This is the Ajax hub. It is a brain of a system we sell in 169 countries.
At the moment, we are the biggest intrusion manufacturer in Europe. We are actively scaling now outside of Europe. The war is not an excuse not to deliver.
For example, for 2022, our planned growth was around 70 per cent. We achieved 35 per cent to 40 per cent because of the war. Suppliers started to worry if they will be paid back. You need to relocate the manufacturing to a safer place because more factories were in Kyiv... and Russian Nazis, they were near Kyiv.
But we are very lucky. In the case of Ajax, the team united a lot. So now it's not a company, it's more like army style. People understand that they are not fighting only for the business, for the prosperity, they are fighting for the country. They understand if the company grow, more jobs, less unemployment, more taxes, more power to the government, more power to the army.
And now we're seeing in front of Banksy artwork, which is protected by Ajax systems and our devices over there. You can see it on the wall. If someone tries to get closer, or touch the glass, the sirens start screaming real loud. It's important for us to save the signs which can bring more attention to Ukraine. This artwork helps us to understand the contrast between the real life and the war.
War is a total disaster. This is an unbelievable price to pay. However, people who are paying this price with their blood. I truly believe they built a better future.
This is not a country about oligarchs. This is not a country about political issues. This is not Russia.
This is a new country, an emerging country with a lot of opportunities. With the smart people we can deliver a good product made in Ukraine, designed in Ukraine. It was very important on the beginning. Now, we take it for granted.
Technology is going to be fundamentally important for Ukraine's counter-offensive.
It's not only about drones and aerial technology. It's also about mobile applications that are used by the military for spotting and correcting artillery fire.
Battlefield management systems which the Ukrainians load up onto. Cheap tablets that they can give to thousands of frontline troops to give them much more awareness of battle plans.
Also, there is a big role being played right now by electronic warfare.
Or anti-drone systems for taking down enemy drones.
This is an anti-drone rifle. Because it's lightweight and it's backpack size any soldier can take it with them to the trench. It's developed together with our partners.
And as a drone UA, we are helping to bring this product to the market, and actually develop it from the commercial part. No, of course, it's not shooting bullets. It emits radio frequency, which blocks the signal between operator and the drone. Right now with the war we have, it's not possible to survive if you have no such solutions on the front line.
Russia is also very strong in battlefield technology for many of the same reasons. It has that long tradition of technical education, and it's used it well on the battlefield.
Who's winning this technology battle between the Ukrainians and the Russians?
Russians, they were much better prepared and equipped for this war. The only thing we can do as a counter-action is to use resources we have in more efficient ways.
Unfortunately, the Russians have superiority, not only in fighter jets, but they have the superiority in technologies. First of all, because they have supply chains from China. And the second point, western technologies in Russian rockets, in Russian missiles, in Russian UAV systems.
They also have used drones in very large numbers, whether it's reconnaissance or attack. They've taken vast numbers of Iranian-built, low cost attack drones and sent them flying into Ukrainian cities. They have not been vastly successful at hitting targets, necessarily. But they are successful at depleting Ukraine's more expensive air defence systems.
If you develop something, you don't need to wait months or years just to try if this technology is efficient or not. So within one day it is possible to reach the frontline to understand if the technology works, and how it works.
The Ukrainian government aspires to turn their country into something like Israel, with super sophisticated military technology.
We think about how many products and technical products related to Miltech has been created so far. And how many of them would be not just created, but also tested and polished through the course of war. And those products would be a basis of other same countries being able to protect themselves.
The reality is Ukraine is decades behind Israel in terms of building up the depth of scientific and technological knowledge, or the financial ecosystem that nurtures these companies, or the exchange of scientific knowledge with partners, particularly the United States.
This war has changed us. You see the death all the time. You become way more straightforward.
It is an every day job to donate right now. This war is touching everyone. If they have one dollar, they donate one dollar. One million dollars, they donate one million dollars.
Life now is tougher, more stressful. A lot of pain, but also a lot of hope. I have two kids. I'm fighting for their future.
The World Bank has estimated that the cost of reconstructing Ukraine and restoring its economic losses is $411bn. And that number will have gone up since they came out with that estimate earlier this year.
We know from watching the development of Ukraine's tech sector that it's absolutely going to play a major role in its country's redevelopment, and likely be the leading factor in just how quickly and efficiently Ukraine is able to rebuild after this war.