In an industrial park in the Latvian capital of Riga, Ukrainians are assembling drones to help give their compatriots an effective presence on the war front.
"ATLAS products have been officially adopted by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine," said Ivan Tolchinsky, founder of drone manufacturer ATLAS.
Tolchinsky, who is in his thirties, was long removed from his native Donetsk province in eastern Ukraine (war broke out there in 2014). He moved as a child with his family to Israel, and as a young man, like other Israelis, spent three years in the army.
That his drones would be now flying over the Donbas was not initially intended.
"The first drone I had actually made for my friends," Tolchinsky smiles.
They wanted to film their rides during a ski trip from the air, without anyone having to stay behind to control the drone.
But by now, drones like ATLAS’ are staples over the battlefield in Ukraine. They give soldiers eyes in the sky to figure out where danger is coming from and also to aim their artillery. Many units buy cheap Chinese models on their own, but to be officially purchased by the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, drones must be approved by the state.
Tolchinsky tells of the tests that his drones had to undergo before that approval. It was confirmed that the devices worked in rain and snow and that the system performed after a car ride on a bumpy road or after the jump of a paratrooper.
"That was done a day before the invasion," Tolchinsky says. "That was pure coincidence."
"We used that time to develop a system that was stable in that environment," he affirms. "We already knew everything." One example of these things is the signal jamming devices that the Russians extensively use on the battlefield to break contact between the drone and the pilot on the ground. ATLAS drones constantly change wavelengths, which helps maintain a better connection.
So, Tolchinsky expanded. His brand new production site looks like a doctor's office, where visitors are given disposable coats and shoes and hair nets. Hygiene protocols are strictest for the department where lenses and cameras are assembled, and dust is prevented from entering, so as not to disrupt pixel production.
The Role of Women
Ukrainian women are everywhere in the facility. About forty women fled the war and found work with their fellow countryman. The latter was really in need of the extra hands.
"We used to have only four women in our company," Tolchinsky laughs. "And now they’re half of our staff.”
One of the newest workers is Tetiana Tarasova. She shows the tools she uses to sand and glue together the armor of a drone. On the wall hangs a handwritten list of steps she has to take. Lastly, Tetiana has to glue the reset button on the harness. With a mask on, she continues this work, the mask protecting against the carbon fibers released from the sanding.
The 40-year-old comes from a village in Ukraine's border province of Sumy, which was partially occupied a year ago.
"It was a disaster there," she talks begrudgingly.
But she didn't really want to leave: after dropping off her child and grandchild at the Polish border, she went back to her country.
Her husband then volunteered to join the army. Tarasova says she tried to join his unit as well, as perhaps a medic, for example.
"Or if necessary as a sniper," she smiles. "But I had no experience." Her husband did indeed get deployed. "I needed to promise him then that I was going to Poland, to the children."
But more than a million and a half Ukrainian refugees settled there, making it difficult to find work to make ends meet.
Tarasova's cousin, who was already working in the camera department of the ATLAS drone manufacturing facility, told her this winter that she should just come to Riga with the children.
Tarasova enjoys putting together drones here, ones that her compatriots use on the front lines.
"Since they didn't deploy me there in Ukraine, at least I am of use here," she said. And besides, she finds it convenient to be on the production line with peers who speak the same language. "They are people who also left because of the war."
The full version of the article is here.