The last decade has seen a rise in the popularity of drone technology in numerous areas – from weather forecasts, film and TV to delivery and construction. In 2022, drones are becoming an integral part of modern warfare, with Ukraine being one of its first ever testing battlefields. We chatted with Ivan Tolchinsky, CEO and Founder of industrial drone manufacturer Atlas Aerospace about his business, the challenges AI can bring to humanity, and the future of UAVs in war and beyond.

Getting into the drone business

I love space science, beautiful airplanes, and speed. But I never thought that this would become my profession. Friends requested me to make a drone that would take videos of us skiing. I invariably always support innovation and out-of-the-ordinary development, so I didn’t want it to be an average drone. My thought was to give it the characteristics of autonomy so that it does not need an operator. I wanted it to be a beautiful product. Ugly things don’t work.

As it was my first development, I did not understand much about the very process of creating a product. We just went ahead through mistakes and issues, but we were able to plan the following steps. I think it was the best experience of my life, and now thanks to it, we can develop new advanced products much easier. If I could go back in time, I would make my first drone even more beautiful.

I am from Israel, and there I would not have been able to create something like this. There are a lot of regulations, and I would not have enough money to start such a company. In Latvia, the prices are lower, and since it is a part of the European Union, I could attract people from all over Europe to work for the company.

Innovation behind AtlasPro drones

Our first product became the first commercial drone that was able to work in a swarm. We started to sell it 5 years ago, and this feature was included in all our products. In the last 2 years, we started to work together with the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, and they briefed us on all the problems on the battlefield. Based on that, we started the new product line. One of these was our radio module, which is very effective against all jamming devices. 

Also, years of cooperation with NATO forces gave us incredible access to all requirements and needs. That's why our drone integrates especially well with all NATO control and fire systems and can operate and provide data to its big brothers. It is not just a drone, it's a part of the fire system which can coordinate artillery fire, able to detect and follow the targets. We also have basic AI, which can indicate and classify targets.

Trendsetters of the drone market 

Our main customers are NATO countries, the UK, Japan, and Singapore. Russians currently don't have small drones under 2 kg, all drones they use are fixed-wing. The situation is alike in Turkey and Israel.

China has the most advanced production of drones holding 74% of the global market of drones, its DJI. The company is more advanced than all others on the market, but they are principally oriented toward the consumer market, not defense, and both markets have different use cases and effects on the drone features.

The USA has companies such as SkyDio, but they are currently more oriented toward software and service providers. We have Flir with skyRanger, the system is made for defense, but the price for such a system is very, very high. In Europe, we have Parrot, with Anafi. So there are not too many competitors in the class range of drones under 2 kg on the market. It’s only recently that everyone is starting to think of integrating Advanced AI technologies which will not only allow us to indicate targets but also make a decision.

Transforming battlefields

There are no more big battles on the battlefield. Drones allow you to operate in small groups on all front lines and attack everywhere. This reduces losses, demotivates the enemy, and creates a lot of damage. Thanks to such small groups, it is possible to hold back large troops. Since it is difficult to fight against them, their number along the battlefield disorients the enemy. In fact, this is a war of a bear against a swarm of bees. No matter how big and strong the bear is, a swarm of small bees will always defeat him. Regarding the numbers, I'm not sure if I can say the number, but it's hundreds.

AI: how far is too far?

I don't think AI technology will take over the world or kill us. But many skills may become unnecessary and useless. A good example is auto-correction on our smartphones. I'm sure a lot of people don't know how to write correctly. And what scares me is that we will cease to be able to think as we cease to be able to write correctly. We will become just flowers in pots.

Challenges for the future

The main issue right now is the supply chain. All the production is located in Asia. And they control these technologies. It is impossible to compete with them. It's difficult, and it's expensive. We lost these opportunities a long time ago, and we moved into the position of someone who runs after them because the price largely depends on these countries and the ability to produce too.

For us, the coming years will be focused on creating new products, creating more and more of our innovative productions, and of course, getting more market shares. We want to be the first as the standard of quality and technology for this market. The main goal for us will be complete autonomy and artificial intelligence. A future military drone is an independent machine that can determine the target and act in a group, making decisions on its own. Our future product will be able to do this in a group and even without human participation.

Adapting to a fast-changing world

I advise everyone currently at the crossroads of careers or degrees not to take the easy path but to choose the right one. Probably it will not be the easiest in your life, but it will be the right one. It is not necessary to choose a profession because it is now in trend or highly paid. Choose what you will be the best in, what you will love. No need to run behind trends and money. You need to feel good there. Studying gave me only the tools, self-organization, and ability to think and learn more. You have to study all your life and learn new things. I never thought that I would understand electronics, production, and supply chain. But you must learn new things every day because the world is changing very quickly.

Of course, space and artificial intelligence are the future, but it is important to make the right choice. And choose your way. The drone industry is just beginning, and there is no country yet where the best engineers are. Experience! That's what's important. Therefore, of course, countries that have experience in creating consumer products have the best engineers. They are the most experienced. That's also why it is very important to get good experience in other companies.

Ivan Tolchinsky will join IT Arena 2022 in a panel discussion on ‘The future of tech in UAVs.’

Photo: Atlas Aerospace.

The interview was originally published in the October issue of the ITID Lviv magazine.

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