Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian forces

Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian forces
This 2022 aerial image provided by Ukrainian security forces, taken by a drone and shown on a screen, shows a blown-up building near the outskirts of Kyiv. (AP)
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Updated 04 March 2022

Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian forces

Ukrainian drone enthusiasts sign up to repel Russian forces
  • Now some are risking their lives by forming a volunteer drone force to help their country repel the Russian invasion
  • “Kyiv needs you and your drone at this moment of fury!” read a Facebook post late last week from the Ukrainian military

DUBAI: In better times, Ukrainian drone enthusiasts flew their gadgets into the sky to photograph weddings, fertilize soybean fields or race other drones for fun.
Now some are risking their lives by forming a volunteer drone force to help their country repel the Russian invasion.
“Kyiv needs you and your drone at this moment of fury!” read a Facebook post late last week from the Ukrainian military, calling for citizens to donate hobby drones and to volunteer as experienced pilots to operate them.
One entrepreneur who runs a retail store selling consumer drones in the capital said its entire stock of some 300 drones made by Chinese company DJI has been dispersed for the cause. Others are working to get more drones across the border from friends and colleagues in Poland and elsewhere in Europe.
“Why are we doing this? We have no other choice. This is our land, our home,” said Denys Sushko, head of operations at Kyiv-based industrial drone technology company DroneUA, which before the war was helping to provide drone services to farmers and energy companies.
Sushko fled his home late last week after his family had to take cover from a nearby explosion. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone and text message Friday after climbing up a tree for better reception.
“We try to use absolutely everything that can help protect our country and drones are a great tool for getting real-time data,” said Sushko, who doesn’t have a drone with him but is providing expertise. “Now in Ukraine no one remains indifferent. Everyone does what they can.”
Unlike the much larger Turkish-built combat drones that Ukraine has in its arsenal, off-the-shelf consumer drones aren’t much use as weapons — but they can be powerful reconnaissance tools. Civilians have been using the aerial cameras to track Russian convoys and then relay the images and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops. Some of the machines have night vision and heat sensors.
But there’s a downside: DJI, the leading provider of consumer drones in Ukraine and around the world, can easily pinpoint the location of an inexperienced drone operator, and no one really knows what the Chinese firm might do with that data. That makes some volunteers uneasy. DJI declined to discuss specifics about how it has responded to the war.
“DJI makes its products entirely for civilian use, and we deplore any use of our products to cause harm,” company spokesperson Adam Lisberg said by email. “However, just like the manufacturers of pickup trucks or mobile phones, we are unable to control how they are ultimately used.”
Taras Troiak, a dealer of DJI drones who started the Kyiv retail store, said DJI has been sending mixed signals about whether it’s providing preferential access to — or disabling — its drone detection platform AeroScope, which both sides of the conflict can potentially use to monitor the other’s flight paths and the communication links between a drone and the device that’s controlling it. In the meantime, Ukrainian drone experts said they’ve been doing whatever they can to teach operators how to protect their whereabouts.
“There are a number of tricks that allow you to increase the level of security when using them,” Sushko said.
Sushko said many in the industry are now trying to get more small drones — including DJI alternatives — transported into Ukraine from neighboring European countries. They can also be used to assist search-and-rescue operations.
Ukraine has a thriving community of drone experts, some of whom were educated at the National Aviation University or the nearby Kyiv Polytechnic University and went on to found local drone and robotics startups.
“They’ve got this homebuilt industry and all these smart people who build drones,” said Faine Greenwood, a US-based consultant on drones for civic uses such as disaster response.
Troiak’s DJI-branded store in Kyiv, which is now shuttered as city residents take shelter, was a hub for that community because it runs a maintenance center and hosts training sessions and a hobby club. Even the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, once paid a visit to the store to buy a drone for one of his children, Troiak said.
A public drone-focused Facebook group administered by Troiak counts more than 15,000 members who have been trading tips about how to assist Ukrainian troops. One drone photographer who belongs to the Ukrainian Association of Drone Racing team told The Associated Press he decided to donate his DJI Mavic drone to the military rather than try to fly it himself. He and others asked not to be named out of fear for their safety.
“The risk to civilian drone operators inside Ukraine is still great,” said Australian drone security expert Mike Monnik. “Locating the operator’s location could result in directed missile fire, given what we’ve seen in the fighting so far. It’s no longer rules of engagement as we have had in previous conflicts.”
Some in Ukraine’s drone community already have experience deploying their expertise in conflict zones because of the country’s long-running conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Monnik’s firm, DroneSec, has tracked multiple instances just in the past year of both sides of that conflict arming small drones with explosives. One thing that Ukrainians said they’ve learned is that small quadcopter drones, such as those sold at stores, are rarely effective at hitting a target with explosive payloads.
“It would seem somewhat short-sighted to waste one,” said Greenwood, the consultant based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “I assume the chief goal would be recon. But if things are getting desperate, who knows.”
DJI also has experience in responding to warfighters trying to weaponize its drones and used so-called “geofencing” technology to block drone movements during conflicts in Syria and Iraq. It’s not clear yet if it will do the same in Ukraine; even if it does, there are ways to work around it. But its rival US-based drone company Skydio, without mentioning DJI by name, warned this week that “Russia and its allies — including China — could force technology companies subject to their laws to suspend operation or to provide intelligence on Ukrainian forces.”
The California company said it has not previously sold products in Ukraine but is now looking at getting some in the hands of Ukraine’s defense forces.
Small civilian drones are no match against Russian combat power but will likely become increasingly important in a protracted war, leaving drone-makers no option to be completely neutral. Any action they take or avoid is “indirectly taking a side,” said PW Singer, a New America fellow who wrote a book about war robots.
“We will see ad-hoc arming of these small civilian drones much the way we’ve seen that done in conflicts around the world from Syria to Iraq and Yemen and Afghanistan,” Singer said. “Just like an IED or a Molotov cocktail, they won’t change the tide of battle but they will definitely make it difficult for Russian soldiers.”


Russian tourists to Finland greeted with Ukrainian anthem

A man and a woman believed to be Russian tourists walk inside a shopping center in Lappeenranta, Finland on August 12, 2022.
A man and a woman believed to be Russian tourists walk inside a shopping center in Lappeenranta, Finland on August 12, 2022.
Updated 15 August 2022

Russian tourists to Finland greeted with Ukrainian anthem

A man and a woman believed to be Russian tourists walk inside a shopping center in Lappeenranta, Finland on August 12, 2022.
  • Many Russians visit Lappeenranta to shop for clothes and cosmetics, for example, and Russian number plates can be seen on numerous cars

LAPPEENRANTA, Finland: A crowd of people gathers in the Eastern Finnish city of Imatra on a bridge overlooking Imatrankoski rapids, one of the Nordic country’s most well-known natural attractions.
At the same time every day, the river’s almost century-old dam is opened and water rushes under the bridge, to the sound of music by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius.
It is a popular attraction especially for Russian tourists. Even Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, visited Imatrankoski in 1772.
But since the end of July, the city of Imatra has started the show by playing the Ukrainian national anthem, to protest the Russian invasion.

Tourists takes photo from the bridge over the Vuoksi river near the dam at The Imatra Rapids in Imatra, Finland, on August 12, 2022. (AFP)

Finland, which shares 1,300-kilometer (800-mile) eastern border with Russia, is also preparing to limit tourist visas issued for Russians.
“This is bad for the Russians who love Finland,” says Mark Kosykh, a 44-year-old Russian tourist who has come to see the rapids with his family.
“But we understand the government of Finland,” he says.
Kosykh emphasises that there are Russians who do not like the war.
“Not all Russians are for Putin. The government and all people must understand this.”

Also in the nearby city of Lappeenranta, the Ukrainian national anthem is played every evening above its city hall, overlooking shopping centers popular with Russian tourists.
“The aim is to express strong support for Ukraine and to condemn the war of aggression,” Lappeenranta’s Mayor Kimmo Jarva told AFP.
Many Russians visit Lappeenranta to shop for clothes and cosmetics, for example, and Russian number plates can be seen on numerous cars.
But tourism from its eastern neighbor has caused discontent in Finland due to the war in Ukraine.
A poll published last week by Finnish public broadcaster Yle showed 58 percent of Finns in favor of restricting Russian tourist visas.
“In my opinion, they should be restricted very strongly. I don’t see any other way to make Russian politicians think,” Lappeenranta local Antero Ahtiainen, 57, says.
Although he has nothing against individual tourists, Ahtiainen says his relationship with Russians has changed.

Spurred by the rising discontent, Finland’s Foreign Minister presented a plan last week to limit tourist visas issued to Russians.
The Nordic country remains Russia’s only EU neighbor without restrictions on tourist visas to Russian citizens.
As flights from Russia to the EU have been halted, Finland has become a transit country for many Russians seeking to travel further into Europe.
“Many saw this as a circumvention of the sanctions regime,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told AFP.
Although the Schengen regime and Finnish law do not allow for an outright ban on visas based on nationality, Finland can reduce visa numbers issued based on category, Haavisto noted.
“Tourism category can be restricted in the terms of how many visas can be applied for in a day,” Haavisto said.
Haavisto said he believed the final decision to adopt the plan could be taken by the end of the month.

Although many Finns are unhappy with Russian visitors now, traditionally people on both sides of the border region have lived in close contact with each other.
“In Saint Petersburg, many people have grandpapas and grandmamas from Finland, like my wife,” Kosykh says and adds that he visits Finland every year.
Russian tourists are also an essential source of income for many Finnish border towns.
After Russia lifted Covid travel restrictions on July 15, the number of Russian tourists heading to Finland has steadily increased.
While the numbers are still well below pre-Covid levels, there were more than 230,000 border crossings in July — up on the 125,000 seen in June.
“Of course, if Russian tourists do not come here, there will be a loss of income for businesses, which is unfortunate,” Jarva says.
But Jarva believes that there is strong support for limiting Russian tourist visas.
“We have to make a choice. We are strongly behind Ukraine.”

 


Suspected Rome bank robber foiled by tunnel collapse

Suspected Rome bank robber foiled by tunnel collapse
Updated 15 August 2022

Suspected Rome bank robber foiled by tunnel collapse

Suspected Rome bank robber foiled by tunnel collapse

ROME: An Italian man had to be rescued after becoming trapped in a collapsed tunnel near the Vatican, suspected of being part of a gang burrowing its way to a nearby bank ahead of the August 15 long weekend, police had said.
Firefighters spent eight hours digging him out from under a road in the west of Rome, before he was finally freed and taken to hospital.
“Two people from Naples were arrested for resisting a public official and two, from Rome, for damage” to public property, a police spokesman told AFP.
The rescued man, one of the two Romans, remains in hospital, he said without giving an update on his condition.
“We are still investigating, we do not exclude that they are thieves, it is one of the theories,” he said.
For Italian newspapers, however, the motive was clear, noting the tunnel was found near a bank ahead of the August 15 long weekend, when residents traditionally head out of town and much of Rome becomes empty.
“The hole gang,” headlined the Corriere della Sera daily, while La Stampa said: “They dig a tunnel to rob a bank, and one of them is buried underground.”
The man brought out alive on a stretcher, after a day-long operation involving dozens of emergency service workers using mechanical diggers on Thursday.
The tunnel began underneath an empty shop that had recently been rented.
“We all thought that the people there were renovating the place. So, we had no suspicion and we did not hear noises either,” a resident, Michele, who lives in the same building told AFP.


Actor Anne Heche legally dead after crash

In this file photo taken on February 26, 2011 actress Anne Heche arrives at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California. (AFP)
In this file photo taken on February 26, 2011 actress Anne Heche arrives at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California. (AFP)
Updated 13 August 2022

Actor Anne Heche legally dead after crash

In this file photo taken on February 26, 2011 actress Anne Heche arrives at the Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, California. (AFP)
  • “Anne will be deeply missed but she lives on through her beautiful sons, her iconic body of work, and her passionate advocacy

LOS ANGELES: Hollywood actor Anne Heche has been declared legally dead, one week after she crashed her car into a Los Angeles building, a spokeswoman said Friday.
Heche, 53, had been comatose in hospital with a severe brain injury since the fiery collision on August 5.
Having lost all brain function, she is “legally dead according to California law,” though her heart is still beating as her family keeps her body on life support while exploring organ donations, spokeswoman Holly Baird told AFP.
“Today we lost a bright light, a kind and most joyful soul, a loving mother, and a loyal friend,” the family said in a joint statement.
“Anne will be deeply missed but she lives on through her beautiful sons, her iconic body of work, and her passionate advocacy.
“Her bravery for always standing in her truth, spreading her message of love and acceptance, will continue to have a lasting impact.”
Heche, best known for 1990s movies “Donnie Brasco” and “Six Days, Seven Nights” as well as a high-profile relationship with talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, crashed her car into a two-story house in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The violent collision resulted in “structural compromise and... heavy fire” at the scene, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.
The ensuing blaze took 59 firefighters more than an hour to contain and fully extinguish, the department said.
Local media reported Thursday that preliminary tests of Heche’s blood had come back positive for narcotics, though more were needed to ensure the drugs had not been administered in the course of her treatment.
Celebrity gossip outlet TMZ, citing unnamed police sources, said Heche had tested positive for cocaine and fentanyl, with the latter sometimes used for pain relief in clinical settings.
Heche rose to fame with her role on the soap opera “Another World,” for which she won a Daytime Emmy in 1991.
She was nominated for a Tony award for her appearance in “Twentieth Century” on Broadway in 2004.
“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” Heche’s son Homer Laffoon said in a separate statement.
“Hopefully my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom,” he wrote.


Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan meets delivery rider after act of goodness goes viral

Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan meets delivery rider after act of goodness goes viral
Updated 11 August 2022

Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan meets delivery rider after act of goodness goes viral

Dubai’s Crown Prince Hamdan meets delivery rider after act of goodness goes viral
  • Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed earlier posted viral video as an Instagram story, inviting the public to help him identify the rider

DUBAI: Dubai’s Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum has met with delivery rider who went viral on social media after removing two concrete blocks from a busy intersection while on duty.
Abdul Ghafoor Abdul Hakeem gained widespread admiration on social media after a video captured the delivery rider waiting for trucks and vehicles to pass before rushing to remove two concrete blocks dangerously laying in middle of the road.
“An honor to meet you Abdul Ghafoor, a true example to be followed,” tweeted Sheikh Hamdan.


Sheikh Hamdan had earlier posted the video as an Instagram story, inviting the public to help him identify the rider.
“An act of goodness in Dubai to be praised. Can someone point me to this man?” he captioned his story.


Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue

Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue
Updated 11 August 2022

Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue

Beluga whale lost in French river euthanized during rescue
  • A team of 80 people tried to save the animal’s life by transporting the cetaceous into a refrigerated truck to the port in Ouistreham, in Normandy region.

PARIS: A beluga whale that became a French celebrity after a wrong turn took it up the Seine River had to be euthanized Wednesday after experiencing health complications during an urgent rescue operation, authorities said.
The sparkling white marine mammal appeared deep inside France last week, having accidentally veered off the normal ocean migration route that takes belugas to and from Arctic waters.
Fearing the malnourished creature would not survive in the Seine much longer, a wildlife conservation group and veterinarians planned to move the lost whale to a saltwater port in Normandy, from where they hoped to return it to the open sea.
A team of 80 people assembled to try to save the animal’s life, and it was successfully moved Tuesday night from a river lock in Saint-Pierre-la-Garenne, west of Paris, into a refrigerated truck for the 60-kilometer (99-mile) journey to the port in Ouistreham.
But during the drive, the 4-meter-long (13-foot-long) whale started to breath with difficulty, according to Florence Ollivet Courtois, a French veterinarian who worked on the rescue operation.
“During the journey, the veterinarians confirmed a worsening of its state, notably in its respiratory activities, and at the same time noticed the animal was in pain, not breathing enough,” Courtois said.
“The suffering was obvious for the animal, so it was important to release its tension, and so we had to proceed to euthanize it,” she added.
Environmentalists had acknowledged the plan to move the beluga risked fatally stressing the mammal. But marine conservation group Sea Shepherd said that it couldn’t have survived much longer in the Seine’s fresh water.
The group and veterinarians noted the whale had responded to a cocktail of antibiotics and vitamins over the last few days, making them hopeful it would recover once it was back in a saltwater environment.
A necropsy is planned on the whale, which weighed about about 800 kilograms (1,764 pounds).
Rescuers had hoped to spare the whale the fate of an orca that strayed into the Seine and died in May. In 2006, a bottlenose whale — nicknamed “Willy” — swam up the Thames River as far as London and died during a its attempted rescue.
Another complicating factor during the beluga’s rescue attempt was the extreme heat gripping France. Authorities tried to keep it cool and wet with soaked towels and moved it at nightfall when temperatures are at their lowest.
The sad end to a saga that gripped France in recent days came after experts determined the whale “was too weakened to be put back into water,” Guillaume Lericolais, the sub-prefect of France’s Calvados region, said.
Rescuers tried to feed the whale fish without success since Friday. Sea Shepherd France said veterinary exams after the beluga’s removal from the river showed it has no digestive activity.