Russia is bombarding Ukraine with drones guided by U.S.-made technology, and the chips are still flowing
They threaten the skies of Ukraine, killing hundreds and injuring millions. But while Moscow’s drones are Russian and Iranian, the core technology inside is European and American.
On an icy Kiev morning, inside an unnamed location with sandbags protecting the windows, Ukrainian drone specialist Pavlo Kaschuk holds a 30-kilogram drone that Ukrainian forces seized from Russia.
“So this is Orlan 10,” he says. “It is a basic Russian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).
He opens it and removes a module. The chip inside bears a logo that reads U-Blox, a Swiss company.
“The task of this chip is orientation in the sky,” he says. Without it, the drone “doesn’t know where to fly.”
The Ukrainian government has also shown CBS News evidence that similar components from several Iranian and Russian-modified drones seized by Ukrainian forces within the past four months were manufactured by U.S. companies Maxim and Microchip.
While the technology is potentially lethal, consumers routinely use the same type of chips found inside smartphones, tablets, cars — potentially anything that uses satellite navigation.
But in Ukraine, Russia is using them to use GLONASS, Moscow’s answer to GPS.
Developed in the 1970s by the Soviet military, it currently employs 22 operational satellites in orbit.
While available to civilian users, today it is essential to Russia’s ability to navigate military vehicles and launch drone strikes, both on the front line and in civilian areas in Ukraine.
Ukrainian authorities say at least six US companies produce GLONASS-compatible chips.
There is no evidence that any of the companies knowingly allowed their products to end up in the hands of Russia or Iran, or that they are violating US sanctions laws, and most companies, including Microchip and Maxim, have terms and conditions prohibiting the use of their technology for military purposes.
None of the American companies would agree to an interview with CBS News or answer our question about whether they do business in Russia.
Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, a Ukrainian lawmaker investigating Russia’s use of drones and Western technology, has had personal experience with the technology.
He recalls when Russia attacked Kiev with nearly 30 self-destructing Iranian-made Shahed drones on October 17, killing four people, including a pregnant woman and father.
“My son was sleeping, but he woke up when we heard the sound of big planes, then explosions, one, two, three,” he says. “It’s very difficult. It’s scary. You don’t even understand how you can help, how you can save your children. What can we do? We can stop the sale of these chips.”
Yurchyshyn has alerted US Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL). The senator’s office told CBS News that the American technology used in Russian military drones is “concerning” and that Durbin has raised it in meetings with administration officials.
U-Blox, the Swiss maker of the chip that CBS News saw inside a Russian drone, says it cut ties with Russian companies early in the war.
“These components, by the way, are not embargoed,” says Sven Etzold, senior director of business marketing at U-Blox. “They are usually for civilian use and can be purchased officially through a distributor.”
But he admits his company cannot stop distributors from selling the technology to companies in Russia.
“Completely open? We can’t be 100% sure,” he says, adding that U-Blox has forced distributors who violate U-Blox’s wishes to stop selling their chips, but was unable to provide examples.
Indeed, CBS News has seen evidence from recent customs forms that such technology from European and American companies continues to enter Russia today through distributors in third-party countries.
“The microchips produced by those American companies and other European companies are indirectly going to Russia through China, through Malaysia and other third countries,” says Denys Hutyk, an analyst at the Economic Security Council of Ukraine.
The chips made by the US companies in question are also compatible with other satellite navigation systems, such as GPS and the EU’s Galileo.
The GPS Innovation Alliance, on behalf of the companies, argues 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 the accuracy of Russia’s drones, both on the battlefield and in attacks on civilian areas, would be for companies to remove GLONASS compatibility from their components, says Andrew McQuillan, an expert in UAV security- ve and director of Crowded Space Drones in London. .
“To make these chips incompatible would absolutely save lives,” he says.
Russian drones will still be able to fly, he notes. “Disabling GLONASS won’t remove the whole problem, but it will make them much less accurate,” he adds, noting that their accuracy is what makes them such attractive weapons to the Russians.
McQuillan points out that some companies already make chips that exclude GLONASS.
When asked by CBS News if U-Blox was able to exclude GLONASS as well, its marketing director Etzold said: “I believe in theory, yes.”
When asked why the company wasn’t doing that, he said, “it’s for us to really check internally,” adding that they would consider it.
For now, Russian drone strikes continue. Vladimir Putin’s army has launched about 600 into 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 on Monday.
Pavlo Kaschuk, the Ukrainian drone specialist, says he would like to talk to these American and European companies whose parts are found in the wreckage.
“I want to ask if they really want to see their logos here,” he says, holding up the chip he removed from a Russian drone. “That is the question.”
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