Serhiy Babak, a scientist and a vice president of economics and future development department at the Kyiv-based University of Emerging Technologies, has many passions. Making drones is one of them.
Babak, 36, who was raised in a household of scientists, says that his interest in drones emerged by chance. After Japan's 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, Babak wondered why human beings were still needed to tackle the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.
“Why should people go and die there if you can use drones?” Babak asks. That’s how he and his team at the Science and Technology Center at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences came up with the Crane drone aimed at monitoring radiation levels.
They made their first drone at the end of 2012. “Production was extremely expensive,” Babak says. A significant share of the cost was spent on testing.
The Crane drone has barometric height sensors; and it can capture images and make HD-videos. There is a small block inside the drone that constantly measures the level of radiation, and all the information is saved on a MicroSD card.
The state-owned 410 Factory for Civilian Aviation commissioned one of Babak’s drones for the Сhornobyl nuclear power plant. It cost around Hr 250,000 ($10,662) for his developers to make one, which is inexpensive for such sophisticated technology. Babak tested the drones himself. He says three prototypes crashed in the process.
When the project was completed, many government bodies, including the defense ministry and border guards, praised the Crane drone. But then “they started building their own ones,” Babak says.
According to Ukraine's state-owned agency Ukrinform, there are at least 10 other types of drones made in Ukraine now. Some of them are designed specifically for army use. On April 4, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko said that tests of the first Ukrainian drones had already begun and they would likely increase the battle ability of the army.
He says there are many Ukrainian companies that create drones for the front lines now. One of those is Kyiv-based robotics lab at the Step IT Academy. At least 30 of their drones, paid for by volunteers, are actively used at the war front now, according to company data.
Babak, however, is sure that it would be better to use American-made drones for the army, because they are difficult to shoot down. In March, the U.S. approved sending hand-launched Raven surveillance mini-drones to Ukraine – a model that was used by Babak’s team as a prototype. Each of these costs around $35,000, according to army-technology.com, a specialized website.
Even though Babak’s team could conceivably design drones for army needs, he doesn't have such plans. Babak explains: “Military and civilian drones are totally different. For example, ours are equipped with GPS, and it is very easy to black out that signal.”
He says that though politicians and battalion leaders reached out to him, he refused to sell his drones for military purposes. “I don’t want other lives to depend on our drones,” he says. “It's a great responsibility.”
Babak says that his Crane project was a success nevertheless, even though no more radiation monitoring drones are planned for production at the moment.
Even thoughinterest in Babak's drone is currently low in Ukraine, other countries are developing similar technologies. In 2014, a British team of scientists at University of Bristol came up with the Advanced Airborne Radiation Monitoring system that consists of a hexacopter mounted with a camera that allows users to assess the intensity of potential radiation leaks.
Babak says he will use his prototype to research other types of drones for civilian use. He has plans to program his drones to find leaks in electrical power lines. The team plans to start scanning thermal power plants with the help of drones equipped with infrared cameras. In fact, drones can do anything the energy companies don’t want to send people to do.
Babak’s has had a lot of support from his family in his line of work. After graduating from the Kyiv National Economic University, Babak attended Napier University in Edinburgh in 1999.
“One year of my education in Britain cost $20,000,” he says. “My parents gave everything they had and I had no pocket money with me then. But I was extremely motivated.”
After spending time abroad, Babak says, he has a sense of how to make Ukraine’s educational system and sciences more competitive. For a time, he organized business conferences and headed the investment and international departments of the International Chamber of Commerce. But finally he dropped these activities to return to the academic environment and to design drones.