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Russia’s New Arctic Drones Are Built to Spot Ships

Its maker says the two aircraft can ID vessels approaching oil and gas facilities from 100 kilometers away.

Russia has developed drones to patrol the Arctic — or at least the areas around its oil and gas facilities. They’ll also be used to monitor ice levels, according to a report in the state media outlet Tass.

Unveiled last week, the ZALA 421-08M and ZALA 421-16E drones feature an automatic identification system that can gather information about a vessel at a distance of 100 kilometers away. They also have navigation systems that don’t relay on GPS, or the Russian version, GLONASS.

The drones were developed to provide “safety of sea shipping and the round-the-clock protection of the perimeters,” said Kalashnikov Group CEO Vladimir Dmitriyev.

Russian military involvement in the Arctic has been increasing over the last few years, as have U.S. leaders’ concerns about it. The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard likened the situation to the South China Sea with its abundant natural resources and contested territorial claims.

Samuel Bendett, research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses' International Affairs Group, said this new military effort fits in with Russia’s prioritization of the Arctic.

“Russia views the Arctic as an area vital to its national security — for the defense of the nation, for the economic development and for environmental factors,” Bendett said. “The government has raised the issue of the difficulties trying to monitor such a vast area, and unmanned systems were named as pivotal for that role. Russia placed a premium on ISR technologies that give it the ability to monitor the Arctic.”

Bendett said the drone’s purported ability to withstand a harsh environment as well as operate without GPS/Glonass is a key component of its design.

“The Russian military has hinted that its training its forces and is designing its technologies to operate in an environment where satellite navigation is unavailable or restricted. So this drone comes ready to operate under such conditions,” Bendett said.

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