They threatened the skies of Ukraine, killing hundreds and scarring millions more. But while Moscow’s drones are Russian and Iranian, the key technologies inside are European and American.
On an icy Kyiv morning, at an unnamed location with sandbags covering the windows, Ukrainian drone expert Pavlo Kaschuk lifted a 30-pound drone captured by the Ukrainian army from Russia machine.
“So, this is Orlan 10,” he said. “It’s a basic Russian drone (unmanned aerial vehicle).”
He opens it and takes out a module. The chip inside bears a logo that says the Swiss company U-Blox.
“The job of this chip is to orient itself in the sky,” he said. Without it, the drone “doesn’t know where to fly”.
The Ukrainian government also presented evidence to CBS News that Ukrainian forces have recovered some Russian and Russian-modified Iranian drones in the past four months with similar components produced by U.S. companies Maxim and Microchip.
While the technology can be deadly, consumers routinely use the same chips found in smartphones, tablets, cars — probably anything that uses satellite navigation.
But in Ukraine, Russia is using them to access GLONASS, Moscow’s answer to GPS.
It was developed by the Soviet military in the 1970s and currently uses 22 satellites in orbit.
While it is available to civilian users, it is now critical to Russia’s ability to fly military vehicles and launch drone strikes on Ukraine’s front lines and in civilian areas.
Ukrainian authorities say at least six U.S. companies produce GLONASS-compatible chips.
There is no evidence that any company knowingly got their products into Russian or Iranian hands, or that they violated U.S. 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 be interviewed by CBS News or answer our questions about whether they do business in Russia.
Ukrainian lawmaker Yaroslav Yurchyshyn, who is leading the investigation into Russia’s use of drones and Western technology, has experience with the technology firsthand.
He recalled Russia attacking Kyiv on October 10 with nearly 30 self-destructing Iranian-made Shahed drones. On the 17th, four people were killed, including a pregnant woman and a father.
“My son was sleeping but when we heard the sound of the big plane and then the explosion, one, two, three, he woke up,” he said. “It’s very tough. It’s fear. You don’t even understand how you can help, how you can save your child. What can we do? We can stop selling these chips.”
Yurchyshyn has notified US senators. Dick Durbin (D-IL). The senator’s office told CBS News that the use of U.S. technology in Russian military drones is “concerning,” an issue Durbin raised in meetings with administration officials.
Swiss chipmaker U-Blox, seen in a Russian drone by CBS News, said it cut ties with the Russian company at the start of the war.
“By the way, these components are not embargoed,” said Sven Etzold, senior director of business marketing at U-Blox. “They are usually civilian and can be purchased officially through dealers.”
But he acknowledged that his company could not prevent distributors from selling the technology to companies in Russia.
“Full disclosure? We can’t be 100% sure,” he said, adding that U-Blox has forced distributors against U-Blox’s wishes to stop selling their chips, but could not provide examples.
In fact, 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.
“Microchips made by these American companies and other European companies are flowing indirectly to Russia via China, Malaysia and other third countries,” said Denis Hutik, an analyst at Ukraine’s Economic Security Council.
The chips produced by the US companies involved are also compatible with other satellite navigation systems, such as GPS and the European Union’s Galileo system.
The GPS Innovation Alliance, which represents the companies, argues that their chips are not used exclusively with Russia’s GLONASS, but in conjunction with available systems to improve accuracy.
Andrew McQuillan, a drone safety expert and director of Crowded Space Drones in London, said one way to reduce the accuracy of Russian drones on the battlefield and when attacking civilian areas is for companies to remove GLONASS compatibility from their components .
“Making these chips incompatible absolutely saves lives,” he said.
He noted that Russian drones would still be able to fly. “Disabling GLONASS won’t solve the whole problem, but it will make them significantly less accurate,” he added, stressing that it’s their accuracy that makes them such an attractive weapon to the Russians.
McQuillan points out that some companies already produce chips that don’t include GLONASS.
When asked by CBS News whether U-Blox would also be able to rule out GLONASS, its marketing director Etzold said, “I believe in theory, yes.”
Asked why the company wasn’t doing this, he said, “We really have to do an internal check,” adding that they would consider doing so.
Currently, Russian drone strikes continue. Vladimir Putin’s forces have fired about 600 missiles in Ukraine since September.
Ukrainian forces shot down more than 80 Iranian-made drones in just two days earlier this week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Monday.
Pavlo Kaschuk, a Ukrainian drone expert, said he wanted to speak to the American and European companies whose parts were found in the rubble.
“I want to ask them if they really want to see their logo here,” he said, holding up a chip he had wrenched off a Russian drone. “That’s the problem.”