Russia is bombarding Ukraine with drones guided by US-made technology, and the chips are still flowing
They menace Ukraine’s skies, killing hundreds, and scarring millions. But while Moscow’s drones are Russian and Iranian, the key technology inside is European and American.
On an icy Kyiv morning, inside an unnamed location with sandbags shielding the windows, Ukrainian drone specialist Pavlo Kaschuk holds up a 30-pound drone that Ukrainian forces captured from Russia.
“So, this is the Orlan 10,” he says. “It is a basic Russian UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle).”
He opens it up 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 proof that similar components, from some Russian and Russian-modified Iranian drones retrieved by Ukrainian forces within the past four months, were produced by US companies Maxim and Microchip.
While the technology is potentially lethal, consumers routinely use the same kind of chips, which are found inside smartphones, tablets, cars — potentially anything that uses satellite navigation.
But in Ukraine, Russia is using them to tap into GLONASS, Moscow’s answer to GPS.
Developed in the 1970s by the Soviet military, it currently utilizes 22 operational satellites in orbit.
While it’s available to civilian users, today it is crucial 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 have knowingly allowed their products to wind up in Russian or Iranian hands, or that they are breaking US sanctions laws, and most companies, including Microchip and Maxim, have terms and conditions that prohibit 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 Kyiv with nearly 30 self-destructing Iranian-made Shahed drones on Oct. 17, killing four people, including a pregnant woman and the father.
“My son was sleeping, but he woke up when we heard what sounded like big planes, then the explosions, one, two, three,” he said. “It’s very hard. It’s fear. You don’t even understand how you can help, how you can save your children. What can we do? We can stop selling these chips.”
Yurchyshyn has alerted US Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL). The senator’s office told CBS News that American technology being used in Russian military drones is “concerning,” and that Durbin has raised it in meetings with administration officials.
U-Blox, the maker of the Swiss chip that CBS News saw inside a Russian drone, says it cut ties with Russian companies at the start of the war.
“These components, by the way, are not under embargo,” says Sven Etzold, the senior director of business marketing at U-Blox. “They are usually for civil usage, and can be officially bought through a distributor.”
But he admits his company can’t stop distributors from selling the technology to companies in Russia.
“Totally openly? 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 make its way into Russia today through distributors in third-party countries.
“Microchips manufactured by those American companies and other European companies are going indirectly to Russia through China, through Malaysia, and other third countries,” says Denys Hutyk, an analyst with the Economic Security Council of Ukraine.
The chips made by the American 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, in order to increase accuracy.
One way to reduce Russia’s drone accuracy, 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 and the director of Crowded Space Drones in London .
“To make these chips incompatible would absolutely save lives,” he says.
Russian drones would still be able to fly, he notes. “Disabling GLONASS is not going to remove the entire problem, but it is going to make them much less accurate,” he added, emphasizing 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 so, he said, “it’s for us to really have to check internally,” adding that they would consider it.
For now, Russia’s drone attacks continue. Vladimir Putin’s military has launched an estimated 600 at 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 speak to these American and European companies, whose parts are found in the rubble.
“I want to ask if they really want to see their logos here,” he says, holding up the chip he’s unscrewed from a Russian drone. “That is the question.”