Faced with thousands of Russian landmines in a grueling counteroffensive, Ukrainian armed forces are using the experimental technique of thermal imagery to locate the threat that has claimed many lives.
CNN has seen Ukrainian frontline troops deploy a thermal camera on a commercially available drone at dusk. The camera floats above Russian minefields and detects dozens of heat signatures. Some are craters, but many are landmines, barely hidden under the surface. The heat they gather from the glaring summer sun during the daytime is retained as the sun sets, causing them to show up more clearly on the thermal camera.
Drones with thermal cameras are frequently available to Ukraine’s frontline troops and are relatively cheap at around $5,000 each. But the scale of the task is formidable, with often up to five landmines per square meter across more than 180,000 square kilometers of mine-affected land, according to official Ukrainian estimates.
Troops with the 15th National Guard, near the heavily contested village of Robotine, told CNN the tactic was an effective means of locating some mines. Footage provided to CNN showed the mines being hit by specialised Ukrainian charges, detonating the devices and clearing at least some of the threat.
It is another example of relatively low-tech ingenuity being deployed along with the extraordinary input of NATO supplied armor and weaponry over the past months to try and assist the counteroffensive.
Paul McCann, a spokesman for the UK-based HALO Trust demining charity, told CNN its demining experts had used the technique in Angola where it had shown some promise. He said the heat signatures of the mines were more acutely visible at dawn and dusk when they contrasted more with the external temperature.
A drone team at a frontline position near the southern village of Robotine told CNN how intensely mined the areas around them were.
“When we entered one treeline, we found up to 53 booby traps," said Oleksandr from the 15th National Guard. "These are not made of one grenade — we call it a 'bouquet,' grenades on top of other grenades.”
Another guardsman, Anton, described the emotional challenges at the front.
“There have been many scary moments. Every time you go to work you step over your fear. Because who else will do it? Nobody. And if they send someone else and something happens to him, you can’t forgive yourself.”
Watch the team's full report here: