Last week, Russia’s state-owned TASS media reported that Zala, a Russian company under the broader umbrella of the Kalashnikov defense complex, is putting LIDAR on its drones for the first time. These light detection and ranging systems are commonly used to create 3-D models of the world, and LIDAR is an important part of most autonomous vehicle designs. What’s unusual with this announcement is that, while the LIDAR system is going on Russian-made drones, the system itself is unmanned, possibly hinting that the LIDAR is an import.
“If this was Russian, domestic technology, then Zala would have named it — in fact, Russian military and industry are now making a point in specifically stating when certain domestic high-tech is used in new and upgraded systems,” says Samuel Bendett, a research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. “The Russian military industry is now in the midst of a massive ‘import-substitution drive,’ with the goal of weaning the domestic industry from its dependence on imported technology.”
Bendett says this isn’t the first time Russia has showcased a technological capability of a drone. The Orlan-10 drones, for example, uses imported parts in its optical components. As for the Zala drones, there are at least eight different models, including both fixed-wing and rotorcraft designs, that could potentially carry this LIDAR, with ranges as short as 9 miles and as long as 90 miles. The announcement at TASS notes that LIDAR on Zala drones will allow for better inspections of infrastructure and terrain, in ways that existing ground-based or manned aircraft technologies cannot provide.
“Russians highlight the key importance of large-scale UAV use as ISR assets in Syria as a key component in their campaign,” says Bendett. Russia’s drones have seen extensive use in Syria in service of the Russian mission there, and one thing learned through extensive use of a technology is the limitations of that technology. “Better situational awareness and quick data collection methods are crucial elements of LIDAR technology — something that Russian forces were behind on until today, with the introduction of LIDAR technology."
No matter how valuable an asset a certain sensor technology might be, it means little if there isn’t a way to procure and use that technology. Which leads to the curious omission of where Russia is getting that LIDAR if the country’s own defense industry is not producing it.
“Western sanctions were supposed to limit Russian access to certain technologies — but, as this announcement indicates, ‘leading international manufacturer’ is most likely a company based in the United States, Western Europe, Israel or even China,” says Bendett, “Therefore, despite attempts at limiting Russian high-tech access, it appears Moscow still has choices when it comes to certain key technologies, perhaps gaining them via third parties in an attempt to circumvent such sanctions.”
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.