Commentators have long asked where Ukraine’s response is to the Iranian Shahed drones used by Russia. Now a new type of long-range drone from Ukraine is beginning to strike Russian forces. New images from Ukraine show attacks launched with new AQ-400 Scythe kamikaze aircraft by Terminal Autonomy; manufacturers confirm they have carried out strikes but cannot comment on details.
The company, formerly One Way Aerospace, was founded by a multinational group and is already mass-producing ammunition for Ukraine. The company’s vision is to democratize air power with large numbers of low-cost, mass-produced, autonomous aircraft. Under a new contract, they are now delivering Scythe drones – currently starting at 50 per month but quickly scaling to around 500 per month by the second quarter of 2024.
“Our goal is to produce 1,000 units per month,” co-founder Francisco Serra-Martins told Forbes. “But it’s not realistic to scale to just a quarter.”
Cheap, numerous and deadly
Terminal Autonomy describes their AQ-400 Scythe as a “no frills, cost-effective payload delivery system.” The compact design has two sets of wings, one forward and one aft, which provide maximum lift for minimum wingspan and allow 30 fully assembled Depanas to be stacked in a shipping container for transport.
The drone’s body is made from milled plywood sheets from a network of furniture factories, which the makers say is more scalable for mass production than 3D printing or using materials like fiberglass. It is designed to be produced without skilled labor, so that volume can be easily increased without lengthy technical training.
The Scythe has a range of approximately 750-900 km, depending on engine choice. Serra-Martins says they can use a variety of engines derived from commercial designs, some built in Ukraine and others imported. That’s enough to put a huge part of Russia in range, plus all of occupied Crimea. The Scythe has a cruising speed of around 140 km/h / 85 mph – similar to the Shahed, with a maximum terminal speed of 200 km/h / 125 mph.
The Scythe carries a 42kg warhead, again similar to the Shahed. Francisco Serra-Martins says a typical payload is a Ukrainian mass-produced high-thermobaric warhead or a pair of 122mm artillery shells that launch shrapnel over a wide area. However, there are other options for specific goals.
Both sides have made extensive use of radio frequency jamming to prevent the use of GPS and other satellite navigation systems. However, the Shahed have often been able to find their targets, with a combination of anti-jamming antennas and inertial navigation. The Scythe can take a similar approach by using a laser altimeter from Lightware to fly very low – around 30m/100ft. Blocking is only effective at line of sight, so low-flying drones are difficult to block and are only affected when they are very close to the jammer.
But the preferred mode now is to come from high altitude.
“We have moved to fly at 3000m [10,000 feet], so every air defense missile it shoots down costs more than the system,” says Serra-Martins. “Only on the terminal dive will it approach a lower altitude. Altitude is used for air bursts and terrain avoidance.”
The Scythe can navigate this mode with an optical positioning system using roads and other visible landmarks, so radio jamming has no effect.
As an optional extra, the Scythe can also have a video link to the operator, turning it into a giant FPV kamikaze capable of picking off and attacking moving targets with high precision. However, this is only possible within radio range and increases the cost, so most Scythes will attack pre-programmed coordinates: command centers, fuel and ammunition dumps, air defense installations, airfields and other high-value targets.
A mass attack drone
The Scythe is a modular, flexible system with payload bays that can be easily modified for different missions. It can take off under its own power along a runway or road, or it can take off (like the Shahed) with a rocket booster where it’s not a flat surface — or from a ship. It can also be launched from a small catapult.
As Serra-Martins notes, mass is key, and drones are only effective in large numbers. Slow-moving drones are relatively easy targets, but the Shaheds have caused so much damage in Ukraine because, although 80% or more are shot down, many make it. A large enough pack of drones will overwhelm the defense and in the long run, the attacks will deplete the supply of surface-to-air missiles.
The basic Scythe airframe costs about $15k. that rises to about $30,000 with coaching and other extras. (Listed prices $20,000-$50,000 for Shahed-136). Serra-Martins says overall costs can be reduced with leader-follower swarms: a lead drone with sophisticated guidance is accompanied by nine low-cost, basic drones that follow its lead in the target area. These can saturate defenses at a lower cost than using the evolved version.
Russia has launched its winter assault on Ukraine’s power grid for the second year in a row. The results will largely depend on how many Shaheds Russia can produce or import. It remains to be seen exactly which targets Ukraine will attack with its new arsenal of Scythes, but again the results will largely depend on how many can be done.