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For several years, Ukrainian troops have been locked in a “frozen conflict” with Russian-backed separatists for control of the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine. Now the opposing forces glare at each other across no man’s land from fortified outposts and periodically lash out with sniper fire , artillery and mortar barrages, or even precision-attacks delivered by anti-tank missiles.In the past, Ukraine harbored a major share of the Soviet Union’s military-industrial sector, building Antonov transport planes, T-64 tanks and even aircraft carriers. Today, Ukraine seeks to leverage that industrial base to strengthen its hand in the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
The most high-profile Ukrainian Unmanned Ground Vehicle (UGV) is the Fantom, a 6×6 first unveiled in 2016. According to a nationalinterest.org article, the vehicle is only one meter tall and three meters long, and can carry a 12.7-millimeter machine gun, or a four Ukrainian-built Barrier anti-tank missiles that can bust tanks from up to five kilometers away. The launcher could allow the low-profile vehicle to hide safely behind cover, with only the launcher exposed. However, the Fantom more routinely could be used for reconnaissance missions, delivering food and ammunition to isolated outposts, or even medically evacuating wounded soldiers from combat. The Fantom is manually controlled from a Ground Control station which transmits orders from up to 5 kilometers away and a radio link with a range of ten kilometers. The operator benefits from one 360-degree focused camera and five fixed cameras for situational awareness, all of which are day/night capable. The Fantom’s practicality will depend on the robustness of its data link and fiber-optic cable under realistic operational conditions.
Power generation and endurance is one UGV design challenge. The Fantom uses a hybrid propulsion system with a separate engine for each of its three pairs of wheels, and a 30-kilowatt capacity generator which draws upon twenty liters of stored fuel to propel the vehicle to a maximum speed of 37 kilometers per hour. The generator periodically activates to replenish the battery but can be suppressed if thermal stealth is important. The Fantom can be recharged from the power grid in ninety minutes.
In addition, an optional remote weapon station on the front segment can carry a stabilized heavy or medium machine gun, which is accurate within a 5 centimeter-radius on targets one kilometer away. The rear segment has a cargo bay which can accommodate 135 kilogram cargoes, or significantly less if the weapon station is equipped. The robot has an endurance of four hours fully-loaded, or up to ten with lighter payloads. The UGV is patrol and reconnaissance-oriented, with integrated thermal cameras and rangefinder. theoretically, the robot could rove around infantry squads and outposts, performing boring but potentially dangerous patrol routines.
Another important Ukrainian tool is the even smaller 310 kilogram UGV, the Laska (“Weasel”) developed by Infocom, resembles a machine gun-armed quad bike. The Laska is powered by a 19-horsepower motor and boasts an extensive array of sensors. The machine gun supposedly has a track-and-engage “Hunter Killer” capability. However, the Laska appears designed for much shorter range use within 100 to 300 meters of the operator—who can command the vehicle using a robotic “smart glove”. it’s not clear at the moment how soon these devices will enter service with the Ukrainian military—or if they will at all. The lack of verified orders could mean the Ukrainian Army is not prioritizing these, or that it is interested but lacks necessary funds, or that the trials and testing for entry into service are simply happening quietly behind the scenes.