“Lego for adults.” Stories of three Ukrainians who assemble kamikaze drones at home

The People’s FPV program from the Victory Drones project, founded by volunteer and public figure Maria Berlinska, has been operating in Ukraine for several months. It teaches Ukrainians how to assemble seven-inch frame kamikaze drones at home. But it gained extraordinary publicity after the Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov called for people to join the initiative.

On social media, the audience took his words ambiguously: some criticized the government for shifting the responsibility for providing drones to ordinary citizens, while others, on the contrary, supported the idea and saw it as another way to support the army.

AIN.Capital spoke to three Ukrainians who had completed the People’s FPV course and asked them about the specifics of assembling drones at home.

Illia Bondar, Photographer

After assembling the first drone, the man did not stop. The photos here and below were provided by Illia

Illia confessed, “I never held a soldering iron in my hand; however, I found the idea of hand-crafted drones quite interesting.” So, he signed up for Victory Drones training and had to wait a month to finally participate because so many people were willing to learn this. About 500 attendees visited online training sessions. The complete course consists of seven lessons: a lecture + a Q&A session each.

“Maybe that makes this course so valuable compared to YouTube videos: You can ask any question, even the stupidest ones. Because the stupidest questions are much better than the stupidest failures.”

One session lasts over three hours. According to Illia, students can get feedback and continue communicating with teachers even after the end of training. All learning videos stay available in Google Classroom, so you can watch them anytime while assembling a drone.

Illia got components for his first drone in Ukraine because he didn’t want to wait for delivery from China despite better prices. “The first training alumni created high demand for pieces. So, the second wave got some struggles,” he recalled. The first drone-crafting set cost Illia about ₴16,000.

Nowadays, he orders 10 to 15 sets in China for $230–260 per unit. He works not alone. Some first and second-wave alumni joined Illia. The team currently has three members spending two hours daily after work on their new hobby. Illia emphasizes that the course is a must before starting to craft drones because soldering a piece also requires knowing how to set up drone software and where to test it.

“An experienced hand can assemble up to four drones daily. I can craft now two or three things. The assembly is only one part of the process. You must also fill it with software, test it, and set it up. The assembly feels like a Lego for adults.”

Illia had never worked with a soldering iron until recently

“A low-quality drone will never get to the army.”

The Victory Drones team provides the participants with a list of components and software for drones at the beginning of the course. The People’s FPV trainers developed it in advance. All trainees have to install the software in a UAV. It is the basic setup. A check follows—the drone must have no gaps; the engines must rotate in the right direction. While soldering, participants send pictures of their work to a trainer who can check for mistakes. If any, the teacher will explain to the student what to fix and how.

After a pre-check, Illia packed and gave the drone to Victory Drones. They tested and re-checked it. According to Illia, improperly assembled UAVs don’t even reach a test stage. So there’s no chance it would appear at the frontline. “If the assembly was successful, though, and the item passed the Victory Drones’s test, it goes to an actual combat unit without naming it due to obvious reasons,” said Illia. However, the manufacturer gets feedback and photographs from soldiers after receiving them.

“During the People’s FPV training, I didn’t care much where exactly they sent my drone. My training was free of charge. So, the product I created is a sign of my gratitude to the authors of the course. I knew it would get to the frontline.”

Illia also shared information about the Social Drone initiative by KazhanFLY, where handmade drones are received and tested. You may indicate the desired destination for a UAV. And they will deliver it accordingly after checking.

“After manufacturing some drones, your contact list grows, including UAV pilots. Then you work on specific requests for a specific military unit.”

Drone components

Cost of equipment

Regarding Facebook posts about a starting equipment set that should cost you about ₴6,000–8,000, Illia seems not to believe that. He is sure a ₴200 AliExpress soldering iron would be fine for crafting one or two drones for the project. Then, you give another hundred hryvnia for a solder. “A silicone mat also would be nice, but a flat table is just perfect for soldering on,” Illia said. In total, the initial expenditure is about ₴1,500.

Later, however, Illia bought a better soldering iron for more UAVs since he had ordered 15 sets of components. “The 200-hryvnia tool is no longer comfortable for large numbers, but it’s all about the comfort of welding it,” he added.

“I am not a professional yet and have only two soldering irons: the first was from China and the second one I bought later. But my first product still has no quality claims. So I don’t see the problems they write on Facebook about.”

The most difficult is to find a proper video transmitter (VTX) with a chip inside.

They at People’s FPV provide you with software for a specific VTX. Regarding additional drone equipment (remote controls, land stations, glasses), Illia remarks you can buy it to check the video connection. But it is not a must when you are going to craft only a few drones.

Today, Illia plans to learn UAV testing to skip the pre-check stage. However, it’s not simple because you should load your flying machine and test it at maximum capacity. A drone must be safe to fly over the positions of Ukrainian fighters before targeting enemies. Illia has advice for beginners:

“Don’t listen to those who criticize the process they don’t understand. Yes, there might be useful remarks. But often, people refuse to try something after reading that. And it is strange when our warriors lack FPVs. I agree with those who say it is not a thing for anyone and requires checking. Someone can think, ‘OK, I can craft something that will fly. Something is better than nothing.’ But no, it won’t work in that way. You need to consider your skills. If you feel talented in this, why not? And it is the right time now when any help is vital.”

Ivan, Network Specialist

Ivan asked not to mention his last name in the article. His post about drone set fundraising exploded with a great interest in media he wasn’t ready for. Although, he agreed to speak with AIN.UA anonymously.

Ivan applied for the Victory Drones course about an hour after he saw the announcement, passed all the checks and security issues, and got a confirmation in October 2023.

The course had a positive impact. He never thought free training could be such a high quality. At every stage, we got hints and advice on what to fix and how, like we were “fifth-grade students”—which cable to solder, how it should look, what other issues might be there, and how to solve them, etc.

“I did not do much of soldering, tried only a few times, and it was years ago. Then I watched a video, tried again, and made it.”

Ivan got a degree in construction, but now he works with computer networks. He’s always been more in programming than engineering. The guy started assembling a drone during the course and finished it right after.

Ivan got all the parts in Ukraine to skip waiting time and supposedly paid only a few thousand hryvnia more. The purchases started before the training following Victory Drones’s recommendation list. Some parts were fast to get but became rare then, and something was bought by mistake, for example, a wrong-angle antenna or a wrong-direction fan. But those were the cheapest articles in the list—200 to 400 hryvnia.

“The first UAV cost me about ₴17,000. I spent another ₴4,000 on tools, and it was very cheap because my friend solderer made me a special offer. So, they should cost a bit more.”

Soldering appeared to be the most complicated part of the process—you had to pay attention to material parameters, temperature, and skill. Ivan managed to pass the check only with his second drone.

After performing a self-check, he had to wait another month for independent re-checking of his drone. Ivan and others got clear instructions that it was all about safety. “There were some logistics issues by Victory Drones after I filled out the delivery form, but we all found it OK,” he added.

The drones went through a two-stage certification. Ivan got his first certificate after the course and passed the test. The second certificate was for assembling a drone. After testing, confirmation followed if it works, flies, and lacks issues. While waiting for a verdict, Ivan ordered the components for the second product. He thought if the first outcome would be not satisfying, he would consider his mistakes to improve the next one. Fortunately, feedback from the field was positive.

After that, he decided to start a new fundraising for more parts and involve more friends since drone assembly doesn’t require much time. Now, he simultaneously puts two drones together and possesses a part of the components for six more.

Ivan noticed a shortage of some spare parts. And this is where the speculation begins.

“Look at video transmitters, for example. As our training started, I could buy them in Ukraine for 2,500 hryvnia. And I thought it was too much. Now, they cost up to 6K in Ukraine. So, the price has grown more than two times. And it’s available in China for about 5,000.”

Ivan thinks that raising prices to high demand and supply shortages is a standard practice of resellers. He looks for suppliers in different groups. He follows recommendations of experienced professionals regarding marketplaces or proven merchants. One shop’s specialty is drones, and the other is IT parts. Alternatively, you can search on Prom.ua, AliExpress, or multiple flea market Telegram channels.

Drone settings

From Ivan’s POV, a great advantage of Victory Drones training is providing ready-to-install software and a list of components. Correspondingly, there is no need to waste time learning all the details and setting nuances. Everything that a participant must do is to assemble a frame, solder the components together, and install the software file.

Ivan is going to give Victory Drones all the drones he assembles. But in the future, he will look for other options to hand over handmade UAVs to friends and buddies in the fields after the check. “It can be possible only when I am 100% sure in my drones.

So, testing is crucial, too,” Ivan added. The engineer considers it another plus of this project because, currently, civilians are not allowed to fly drones in Ukraine. With such initiatives as Victory Drones, people may test their UAVs on an appropriate testing ground.

“The Victory Drones initiative is outstanding. You can give them your handmade drone for a test, and if there is any issue, they will fix it instantly and won’t send it back to you.”

After the test, a military drone operator instructed Ivan about cable installation. His advice is,

“Don’t assemble drones for fun. Please do understand that it is not about the quantity. Pay attention to the quality and be careful about what you do so that your product has a specific purpose. It must fly and not just be assembled.”

Artem Melnyk, Software Developer

The man is already assembling drones for combat units. The photos here and below were provided by Artem

Since he works in IT, Artem is fond of technology. Before the full-scale Russian invasion, he was interested in quadcopters and could fly them. However, the man never assembled them. In November, he signed up for the People’s FPV course. It was too late for the first wave, so they added him to the waiting list. All applicants were verified. “Wrong people” might not attend this kind of training. It started in three weeks. Artem shares his insights:

“It was cool and clear. There was a lot of structured information. I used to watch different videos online, for instance, on the E-Drone YouTube channel. I liked their videos, too. But Victory Drones explained and chewed over all the details and answered all the questions.”

A teacher and a mentor hosted the lessons. The first told the information and the second read questions from the chat.

Artem started his first drone assembly right after the end of training. But then, the component shortage began. He believes it was because the training got hyped. So, he had to order the pieces in China. The package came in late December. However, Artem successfully mounted his first UAV and sent it for testing. All the parts cost him about 9,000 hryvnia.

Fortunately for Artem, it was the sale season, and the USD to UAH exchange rate was better. Now, drone components cost ₴13,000–14,000. In addition, you will need a battery to test the thing. This piece is worth ₴2.5K in Ukraine.

Some things are not worth saving on

Artem says some parts are not worth saving on because whether a drone will fly depends on that very component. The most important is not to let it fall on the heads of the soldiers piloting it. Pay attention to the frame. It must be balanced and equal to all beams. It also must be robust (a 7-inch UAV) to carry a 1.5-kg weight. The beams get a high load, lifting four engines. If made of low-quality materials, they can crack.

“Victory Drones and Social Drone recommend carbon frames. Why carbon? It is light and robust. Alternatively, you can use textolite plates, different kinds of plastic, or aluminum.”

The frame also protects against vibrations that can interfere with the video connection. Artem prefers the MARK4 7-inch carbon frames for their space for components, convenience, and solidity, similar to the Apex models recommended by Victory Drones. MARK4’s price is $15 to $22.

Artem also doesn’t recommend to save on engines. The FPV drones basically are not designed to carry a heavy weight, so the engines must be high-quality ones. Emex is gold for Artem. A four-engine set costs about $70; there are cheaper alternatives as well, for example, a $50 one from Yashida. “They are well-tested and show only a little share of refuse. There are also expensive options—Mamba, Flash Hobby, or Brotherhoods.”

Artem also emphasized the importance of video chips. There are supply shortages both in China and Ukraine, and it has become harder to find reliable video transmitters. The prices have doubled. And Chinese resellers take advantage of the situation.

They accept as many orders as possible but deliver nothing, waiting till the end of shortage and keeping the money “frozen.” The 2.5W Rush Max VTX is a perfect example. Recently, it was available in China for $60. But now it doesn’t even for over $100.

Some components for drones have become scarce

“Military likes volunteer drones.”

Artem stated he didn’t get any feedback from militants yet, “Maybe it is because my package got to them only two weeks ago. It’s not that long.” He’s not going to stop, however.

“After assembling my first drone during the Victory Drones training, I crafted four more. Then, I ran a fundraising campaign on Instagram and FB and got funds for ten more. I ordered them on January 8, so they are coming from China now. And I won’t stop on this.”

Artem told of a girl whose father is serving now has contacted him. Recently, he changed his profession to the FPV drone pilot, and his unit needs tons of them.

“The girl said the drones from the state are low-quality ones. So low like only 6 of 10 are working. Half of them either are not completely set up or have issues. Military likes volunteer drones as they are well-tested and of higher quality.”

She offered cooperation, and he didn’t refuse. So, the drones he made go to her father through the Social Drone initiative. Artem admitted so many requests from people needing drones after he started raising funds. Several charity organizations also contacted Artem for consulting.

He underlined the importance of proper drone soldering and cable-laying so that the soldiers could easily add an explosive in the field. Usually, it gets done with sticky tape and cable ties. Don’t overpressure the cables and don’t let the thing vibrate.

Also ask military guys about their needs, equipment, and software when crafting drones for someone. They are not universal; they work with different communication protocols, frequencies, VTX capacity, etc.

“Victory Drones prescribed the use of 5.8 GHz for video transmitters. But you can also find 1.2 GHz at the frontline, I believe. They work in smaller distances, but it also has fewer obstacles since fewer EW are used on this frequency,” Artem concluded.

He agrees that drone assembly is not for everybody. But everyone can learn how to do it. The financial component is also vital. The person should afford to buy UAV components. Yes, fundraising is a decent option. However, you must be sure of your drone-assembler skills.

“You are responsible for money you got from people, so you must be sure you convert it into a real drone.”