“No drone can fly that long.” AEROBAVOVNA aerostats and their manufacturing

Ukrainian defenders are using aerostats more and more actively at the battlefront. They are being used, in particular, to support the connection for drones and can stay in the sky for several days. AEROBAVOVNA manufactures such flying devices in Kyiv.

AIN visited its facilities and talked with the co-founder, Yuriy Vysoven.

An aerostat looks like a massive balloon connected via a tether. It carries some useful load—a camera or a radio repeater—based on the mission. The latter are more common near to the frontline. The devices help keep a stable connection between an operator and a drone until it hits an enemy target.

Usually, the radio repeaters are fixed to other UAVs. The aerostat has the same function but appears more useful.

“An aerostat can fly for two days. No drone can hold that long, but the aerostats do. And their price is more attractive. Everything that can fly a few hours is expensive,” said Yuriy Vysoven.

Unlike a drone, an aerostat can fly for several days. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

One aerostat costs $6,500. According to Yuriy, one can buy 1.5 Mavik drones with thermal cameras for the same money. “They are expendables. Each brigade can lose a couple of them every day,” the manufacturer confirmed. Did the enemy hit aerostats? The project co-founder doesn’t know of any such case. However, he could remember a situation when one aerostat died after a friendly fire—a Ukrainian soldier shot it down. This happened in the Luhansk region. A guy just missed the information that an aerostat was operated and opened fire at “an unknown flying object.”

Another advantage of aerostats is their invisibility. The enemy can see drones while they are approaching, Yuriy Vysoven added. But an aerostat cannot be seen for several kilometers, so you do not need to hide it.

“Sooner or later, Russians will publish a video of shooting down our aerostats. If they do, we will make more. It will be no tragedy,” Yuriy summarized.

Yuriy Vysoven, co-founder of the AEROBAVOVNA project. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

The aerostat holds in the air thanks to helium. Its air-inflated “tail” that can change angles and positions helps hold against strong wind and not fall on the ground. Such an aerodynamical form is similar to a kite.

Yuriy shows a mockup. The source material of a small copy made of a transparent thin film differs from the original aerostat made of a special robust film.

Mockup and original. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA
The aerostat has two valves through which it is inflated with helium. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA
One of the valves. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA
The payload is attached to the aerostat from below. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

The aerostat is fixed with a rope connected to a ground station winch. The winch is operated with an e-motor.

Transportation of the balloon. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

Before delivering the whole stuff—a motor, a winch, a rope, an aerostat, and helium cylinders—to a military unit, it all has been well tested on a proving ground. We were not allowed to come there and see its testing, but we could see a demonstration start of an aerostat within the company’s facilities.

A special van. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA
Launch of the balloon. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

Only two persons are enough to launch this device. First, it gets filled with helium, about 10 m3 or 1.5 cylinders (6 m3 per unit). The level of helium consumption depends on the load. The calculation of the required volume is a complex design process—the officers inform the producer about their needs, the company develops a specification, and the actual work begins.

The wind speed at the moment of the aerostat start should be no more than 15 m/s. Under war conditions, it can run within 2 km from the frontline.

“After the aerostat has been lifted in the air, I would not recommend you to stay under it because if it gets hit, we would better lose it but no lives,” Yuriy said.

The mobile brigade. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

The flying device needs a few minutes to get in the sky. After that, the crew must leave. The aerostat slowly loses helium that can go out of any material, even a steel cylinder. That is why soldiers must check and refill it from time to time.

“In any case, our defenders change repeater batteries, so they can check the aerostat and refill it if needed,” added Yuriy.

The inventor recommends launching devices at night which is safer.

If necessary, the balloon can be inflated with more helium. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

An aerostat can rise to 700 meters, but Yuriy emphasizes it is not needed to lift it over 500 meters because a radio repeater can ensure the signal for FPV drones within a 40-km range even at the height of 300 meters. And FPV drones can fly only within the range of 20 km. So, there is no chance to increase the radio range for a drone operator.

The aerostat is invisible in the sky. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

However, the signal strength depends on the height of the repeater— the higher a radio repeater is, the better chances are that a signal would overcome electronic warfare. Nobody will guarantee you anything. A drone can leave the range at any time and become closer to the EW than its operator, and the signal will be lost.

“It’s war. We must fight for each meter of signal availability.”

Aerostat manufacturing

The production is decentralized in three locations. The first facility does cloth sewing and balloon assembling. The second point assembles an electronic motor based on a military request (with a radio repeater, cameras, etc.). And the third entity crafts a winch to hold an aerostat in the air. The manufacturer plans to move into one building and unite all production stages.

Yuriy says assembling all parts into one product is much trickier than their production.

The balloon is being assembled at this location. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

Many elements come from Ukraine, but not all. For example, film comes from Italy, and the engines are from foreign manufacturers. Ukraine produces enough helium. But prices and demand constantly increase. Yuriy said that 1.5 helium cylinders cost over 20,000 UAH.

The aerostat development started about 18 months ago, and the products have been used already for six months. It took so long because aerostats had to be refined and tested, and “we had to convince military officers it was not a steampunk from the XIX century,” added Yuriy.

The AEROBAVOVNA team can come close to the front to teach crews how to use aerostats if needed. However, the militants participate in training generally in Kyiv. It is not always easy since the soldiers cannot leave when they wish.

“Everything becomes complicated because the officers can find money but not time to come here or appoint some men. There are travel time and training time. They must spend the whole day on a training ground. If there is an air alarm, the launch of an aerostat can be postponed,” Yuriy Vysoven said.

There are production facilities at three locations. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

The company plans to expand its production. Its co-founder acknowledges they cooperate only with a few brigades, but the number of requests constantly increases. For example, Yuriy got about 30 new requests after the YouTube channel Militarnyi made a video about AEROBAVOVNA. Currently, there are 50 open requests from different military units.

How popular are aerostats abroad

Yuriy shared with us some history. The aerostats belong to many national armies. The Americans, for example, use them since the 1970s. During the campaigns in Iran and Afghanistan, they installed 66 strategic aerostats (that can carry several tons of load—radars or cameras).

Poland will also buy now two aerostats from the US. According to a $1.2-billion contract, the Poles will get not only the aerostats but also radars to detect targets and maintenance and training. The recent US military aid package for Taiwan also contained aerostats, Yuriy explained.

The inventor thinks the radars mounted to aerostats can easily replace airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, which can fly only for 10 to 15 hours and must land for refueling, while aerostats can stay in the air longer.

“Lifting a radar in the air is a quite practical thing. The Americans have such plains. But let’s be honest, no other nation can allow such a number of AEW&C vehicles because of their impossible value. Anyway, an AEW&C aircraft can be there only for a limited time. To operate 24/7, you must have many crews ready,” Yuriy Vysoven said.

Thus, as a manufacturer, he must admit that Ukraine won’t create an aerostat that could carry radars within the next couple of years. However, engineers are already working on the solution.

“Nobody plans to become a millionaire thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine.”

As Yuriy said, AEROBAVOVNA is the only aerostat manufacturer in Ukraine. For sure, there is some margin due to certain costs that cannot be calculated in advance. The project got funding from the Brave1 defense tech cluster.

“Our focus is creating a cool product and proving its effectiveness. If we achieve this, we will get both domestic and international orders and make a lot of money.”

Testing the aerostat. Photo credit: Olha Zakrevska / AIN.UA

Before the war, aerostats in Ukraine were used as advertising space at festivals. The co-founder of AEROBAVOVNA suggests that after the victory, they will also be used for border control or other security tasks.

According to Yuriy Vysoven, there are already teams in Ukraine that are ready to start new businesses. He names the UK, Turkey, Israel, China, and France as other manufacturing countries. As for Russia, there are aerostat production facilities there, but he does not observe their massive use at the front.