In a workshop in western Ukraine, a group of hobby drone pilots gathered around a table recently as a technician fitted a racing drone to carry a grenade, turning an aircraft found in hobby stores into a weapon in the war against Russia.
Two American businesspeople, who had arrived from the United States with a donation of a dozen similar drones, watched.
The drones are a small part of an unprecedented public response to appeals by the Ukrainian military for resources to help it fight much better equipped Russian forces.
“Basically we have a little drone hub here,” said a Ukrainian drone operator who for security reasons asked to be identified only by his middle name, Oleksandr.
He also asked that the location of the workshop remain undisclosed. “We’re building drones and rebuilding existing drones to use in rescue operations, military operations and search operations.”
In practice, many of the hobby drones have a short life.
“The enemy is hitting them so some of them live for just a day or two,” Oleksandr said, referring to the fact that drones can be shot down in flight. “But in that day or two they have important missions. We are protecting ourselves.”
The group is also making the drones simpler to control and training Ukrainian service members to use fly them. The hobby drones brought from the United States are first-person view, meaning they have a camera transmitting live images to a pair of goggles. This makes it seem as if the pilot is in a cockpit. The drones reach speeds of up to 80 miles an hour and Oleksandr said pilots flying them in professional competitions train for years.
Unlike the United States, where drone pilots must pass tests, in Ukraine they are essentially unregulated.
“For drone hobbyists in the U.S. to do anything with military equipment is practically impossible,” said Chad Kapper, the founder of Rotor Riot, whose holding company Red Cat Holdings supplied 10 of the drones he delivered to Ukraine. “The hobby stuff is unregulated in a certain sense so they can use as much as they can get.”
Mr. Kapper, a former Marine whose Flite Test YouTube channel has two million subscribers, said drones like the ones he supplied would help fill a gap while Ukraine waits for more military-grade drones. He said he got involved after reaching out to Oleksandr, who he knew from the international racing drone community, to find out how he was doing.
For Oleksandr and the other Ukrainian pilots, technicians and engineers at the drone hub, the effort is a continuation of a war that started in 2014 when the Ukrainian Army turned to civilians for help in offsetting its lack of equipment in its fight against Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula.
“The military now is calling me from different spots, from different battalions and they tell me ‘can you send more? We have run out,’” said Oleksandr, who in peacetime is a sporting event organizer.
He said the drones brought by the Americans, which each cost about $1,000 and up, would be useful for a range of tasks such as carrying explosives, observing Russian units and targeting artillery. They could also be equipped with infrared cameras to locate and help rescue people in destroyed buildings or forests.
“There is nothing illegal,” said an entrepreneur from Tennessee who helped buy and deliver the drones in what he described as a humanitarian mission. He asked to remain anonymous because he was worried about his safety. “They requested drones. What they do with them is entirely up to them.”
The war’s narrative of a weaker country holding off a powerful aggressor and the specter of genocide in Europe has resonated strongly with Americans and others around the world.
“After sending money, I just didn’t feel like I was doing enough,” said the American businessman. “I have resources and I have connections in this part of the world. And I knew I could make a difference by putting some things in process in helping with the supply of drones.”
Many of the drones are being funded by a local aid organization helping the military. The American businessman, who said he had been contacted by the Ukrainian military for help, said he was also setting up a charitable organization to allow people to donate to buy drones for Ukraine.