They threaten the skies of Ukraine, killing hundreds and scarring millions. But while Moscow’s drones are Russian and Iranian, the key technology inside is European and American.
On a frosty Kiev morning, Ukrainian drone specialist Pavlo Kaschuk holds up a 30-pound drone captured by Ukrainian forces from Russia at an unnamed location with sandbags outside the windows.
“So this is Orlan 10,” he says. “It’s a simple Russian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).”
He opens it and removes a module. The chip inside carries a logo with the inscription U-Blox, a Swiss company.
“The job of this chip is to find your way around the sky,” he says. Without them, “the drone doesn’t know where to fly.”
The Ukrainian government has also provided CBS News with evidence that similar components from some Russian and Russian-modified Iranian drones recovered by Ukrainian forces over the past four months were manufactured by US companies Maxim and Microchip.
While the technology is potentially lethal, consumers routinely use the same type of chips found in smartphones, tablets, cars – possibly anything that uses satellite navigation.
But in Ukraine, Russia is using them to tap into GLONASS, Moscow’s answer to GPS.
It was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and currently uses 22 operational satellites in orbit.
While available to civilian users, today it is critical to Russia’s ability to navigate military vehicles and launch drone strikes, both on the front lines and in civilian areas in Ukraine.
At least six US companies are making GLONASS-compatible chips, according to Ukrainian authorities.
There is no evidence that any of the companies knowingly allowed their products to fall into Russian or Iranian hands, or that they violate US sanctions laws, and most companies, including Microchip and Maxim, have terms and conditions prohibiting their use their technology for military purposes.
None of the American companies would agree to an interview with CBS News or answer our question about doing business in Russia.
Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a Ukrainian lawmaker who studies Russia’s use of drones and Western technology, has had personal experience with the technology.
He recalls when on October 17 Russia attacked Kyiv with nearly 30 self-destructing Iranian-made Shahed drones, killing four people, including a pregnant woman and the father.
“My son was sleeping but he woke up when we heard noises like big airplanes, then the explosions, one, two, three,” he says. “It’s very hard. It’s fear. You don’t even understand how to help, how to save your children. What can we do? We can stop selling these chips.”
Yurchyshyn has alerted US Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). The senator’s office told CBS News that the use of American technology in Russian military drones was “of concern” and that Durbin had raised it in meetings with administration officials.
U-Blox, the maker of the Swiss chip that CBS News saw in a Russian drone, says it severed ties with Russian companies early in the war.
“By the way, these components are not subject to an embargo,” says Sven Etzold, Senior Director Business Marketing at U-Blox. “They are usually for civilian use and can be officially purchased through a dealer.”
But he admits his company can’t stop distributors from selling the technology to companies in Russia.
“All open? We can’t be 100% sure,” he says, adding that U-Blox has forced merchants who violated U-Blox’s wishes to stop selling their chips, but couldn’t give any examples.
Indeed, CBS News has seen evidence from recent customs forms that even today, such technologies from European and American companies are still entering Russia through third-country distributors.
“Microchips made by these American companies and other European companies go to Russia indirectly via China, Malaysia and other third countries,” says Denys Hutyk, an analyst at Ukraine’s Economic Security Council.
The chips from the American companies concerned are also compatible with other satellite navigation systems such as the EU’s GPS and Galileo.
The GPS Innovation Alliance argues on behalf of the companies that their chips do not work exclusively with Russia’s GLONASS, but with a combination of available systems to increase accuracy.
One way to reduce Russia’s drone accuracy both on the battlefield and when attacking civilian areas would be for companies to remove GLONASS compatibility from their components, says Andrew McQuillan, UAV security expert and director of Crowded Space Drones in London .
“Making these chips incompatible would absolutely save lives,” he says.
Russian drones could still fly, he notes. “Disabling GLONASS won’t eliminate the entire problem, but it will make them much less accurate,” he adds, noting that their accuracy makes them such attractive weapons for the Russians.
McQuillan points out that some companies are already making chips that exclude GLONASS.
When asked by CBS News if U-Blox could rule out GLONASS as well, its marketing director Etzold said, “I believe in the theory, yes.”
When asked why the company isn’t doing this, he said, “It’s up to us to really look into this internally,” adding that they would consider it.
For now, Russia’s drone strikes continue. Vladimir Putin’s military has fired an estimated 600 at Ukraine since September.
Earlier this week, Ukrainian forces shot down more than 80 Iranian-made drones in just two days, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday.
Pavlo Kaschuk, the Ukrainian drone specialist, says he would like to speak to these American and European companies whose parts are being found in the rubble.
“I want to ask if you really want to see your logos here,” he says, holding up the chip he unscrewed from a Russian drone. “That is the question.”
https://www.cbsnews.com/news/ukraine-war-russia-iranian-drones-us-made-technology-chips/ Russia is bombing Ukraine with drones piloted by US-made technology, and the shavings are still flowing