Solution 11:30 03 Apr 2023

Seven seconds from smartphone to air defense maps: how one app unites millions to shoot down Russian missiles

Ukraine's air defense forces have been shooting down enemy missiles and drones for over a year of full-scale war. The volunteer design group Technari developed the smartphone app ePPO to make the Ukrainian sky less vulnerable. Using ePPO, anyone can transmit information about enemy missiles, drones, or aircraft in real time. The Ukrainian air defense forces receive this data and can act on it to shoot down the enemy target within seconds.

Rubryka spoke to Gennady Suldin, co-developer of the ePPO app about the developers' plans to prevent Russia from even daring to launch missiles at Ukraine.

"A missile flies a kilometer in 4 seconds"

What did you feel in the first days of the war? 

— I remember that we heard the first explosions not far from our house. The first thought was, "Why didn't I make a basement?" The second was, "This is going to last for a long time," and the third one was, "I need to protect my family somehow." Four days later, my wife and daughter went abroad, and I felt better because if someone was to get killed, it was only me, not them. The first task of protecting the family was completed, I never made a basement, and from March 3, our team started helping the military.

єППО, Геннадій Сульдін

Gennady Suldin, co-developer of the ePPO app that makes the Ukrainian sky less vulnerable.

— How did you join the volunteer group Technari, and what did you start working on?

— Technari is a part of the local volunteer community "Odesa Defense 2.0." From the point of view of helping the military, we realized that Ukrainians needed many walkie-talkies from the first days of the war and that the army lacked optics, or day or night thermal imaging. So our team concentrated on electronics and optics. Until today, nothing has changed, and we deliver various electronic and optical devices to the military, primarily for air defense. This is the raison d'etre of the Technari group.

— How did you understand what was most necessary at that moment? Why did you focus on this?

— The first days of full-scale war showed that the Russians' tactics were massive missile strikes with supersonic, low-flying cruise missiles. I served in the Soviet army's anti-aircraft defense. I am also a signalman by trade and graduated from the Odesa Electrotechnical Institute of Communication. I understood well that the system's locator sees at a much shorter distance at low altitudes than at medium and high altitudes.

Clearly, there were many routes and places a cruise missile could go. Air defense radars may not see it solely because it flies at a low altitude and can be camouflaged by uneven terrain, for example, behind a canyon or a river.

From the point of view of pre-war air defense theory, a cruise missile is very difficult to shoot down with barrel artillery or machine guns, as well as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) like "Igla" or "Stinger." But the war showed us some strange things. First, MANPADS, considered obsolete weapons in concept, shot down 20-25% of all air targets during this war. Secondly, as it turned out, with quick targeting for an air defense post, it is possible to shoot down the Russian "Caliber" with the Igla MANPADS. This has already been proven so often that it is hard to believe that 11 months ago, such a thing was considered impossible. We know a guy who is 23 years old, and he already shot down four cruise missiles in the south of Ukraine with the Igla MANPADS in two months.

No country has been subjected to such missile attacks. We understood that the military needed more time for these calculations to work successfully. They need to know that this missile is coming at them. It was necessary to find a reserve for targeting and aerial surveillance, supplementing the locators with something. We see this reserve in 30 million sensors. That is, every Ukrainian can become such a sensor. At the beginning of the war, there were many reports and videos of these missiles flying, but it was all too late because a rocket flies a kilometer in 4 seconds. It should take several seconds after a person sees the target to the moment air defense specialists see it.

— And you did it with the help of the ePPO mobile application. Tell us more about it.

This app helps the military detect aerial targets. ePPO is an auxiliary means of air reconnaissance. It complements radar in those areas where the locators may not see the target. This application was created as a means of combating cruise missiles. When Shahed kamikaze drones appeared, the ePPO was already being tested in the army. During the first kamikaze drone attacks, we already negotiated with representatives of Ukraine's Diia digital governance app regarding user authorization. The first combat use was eight or nine days after launch. From two to seven seconds pass from when the data is sent to ePPO to when this mark appears on all maps of all air-defense accounts of all officers. That is, the person who informs about the missile movement notifies not only the regional air defense, but everyone.

єППО технарі

"It depends on the guy with a 15-kilogram "pipe" at such moments whether the missile will be shot down or not"

— Tell us about the first time you shot down a cruise missile with your application's help. What did you feel then?

We have a terrible enemy, and we all feel the same — we don't have enough time and really want to sleep. We must turn our army into a better version of ourselves every day because we dreamed of something when we first saw what our air defense was capable of. Then we had a sincere desire to do things differently. First, we wanted each MANPADS calculation to have reliable targeting. This is at least a tablet with all means of notification such as Signal, TeamSpeak, and ePPO installed to warn them in advance that a target is flying towards them. The calculations must have binoculars with an azimuth (compass) and an angular reticle to see the cruise missile 3-4 seconds earlier and warn the shooter so they have time to prepare for launch. The pre-launch procedure lasts six seconds.

Whether a missile is shot down depends on this guy with a 15-kilogram Igla MANPADS at such moments. It is necessary to do everything so that he is comfortable and is warned in advance. It is also important that the calculation of the small arms or machine gun meets the missile. Although the probability of being hit by a rocket from small arms or a machine gun is small, there are such cases. Every time a missile is shot down from a machine gun, small arms, anti-aircraft gun, or Igla, there is no need to spend an expensive S-300 missile on it, which, by the way, cannot be bought anywhere.

ePPO is an extensive system, which everyone knows about, and this application is only a part of that system. Russian hacker attacks on ePPO are a separate issue. During the most significant attack, we changed the data on the server and wrote what we thought about it in certain areas of the data. If they could do something about the system, they would.

додаток єППО

— Are other countries like Israel, the USA, and Great Britain that have seen this mobile application interested in it? 

They are not interested in it because none of them has ever faced such a threat. And none of them, except for some air defense specialists, understand that if they meet this threat, they will be worse off than us. NATO air defense has always been based on fighters. Their anti-aircraft missile complexes are additional air defense systems. Ukraine has them as its main ones. And if a fighter jet is looking for 30 cruise missiles that go along streams and rivers, then, in my opinion, it would be beneficial for NATO to get acquainted with actual combat experience as soon as possible.

— Do the NATO countries have a request for Ukraine to share its experience?

You can feel the need for this system only when you hear five explosions next to you. Otherwise, no one will understand how Ukrainians feel.

In the first days of the war, everyone who could, and had some access to the international community, called for the sky over Ukraine to be closed. They did this continuously for several months, and then they realized that nothing would work and the strategy had to be changed. 

— In your opinion, why did the world not want to help Ukraine?

Because the world cannot. There is no technical possibility of placing an air defense system near each transformer substation. There are no radar systems that cover everything. When we asked the world to close the sky, we proceeded only because we needed to find reserves that depended only on us, and we found them.

— How many people work on the ePPO system?

There were 37 programmers. Now it does not need maintenance, so we are working on its improvement. This system is not static, and it is evolving. There are new opportunities for the military. We make it faster and more secure because the military part of the system will work on any device in Google Chrome. Notifications are accepted from the simplest versions of Android and iOS. We deliberately ensured the system did not require any resources from civilian, military, and state users.

We still have the projects of several electronic devices, two combat scenarios, and thousands of electronic and optical devices that we have purposefully transferred to the military.

збивання ракети

"Damn it"

— Tell us about your new developments.

I can tell you about one — it is a night vision device for Sova cars. At first glance, nothing is complicated — we put a camera on the roof, a monitor in the cabin, insert the power supply into the cigarette lighter, and off we go. Questions arise later, for example, if the power on board is not 12 volts but 24. Accordingly, some kind of universal power supply is necessary. What if the battery is dead? Therefore, we need to develop such a model, which would be installed on a car in two minutes so that anyone could get the hang of it quickly. From the 14th attempt, we managed to make one.

— What stages did this project go through?

"Damn it"; "damn it"; "what kind of garbage did we buy?"; "why did I do this?!"; "again, nothing happened"; "throw away this junk!"; "let's buy an expensive camera? No, we can not". And so on and so on, for three months. 

On the ninth option, we realized that this is what is needed. We drove in the dark under the stars without any lights and were satisfied with the result. The development team decided this kit could be the first generation, and we made 20 of these. Then came the second generation, and it was significantly improved. And the third generation has already turned out to be universal: one or two cameras can be used, and there is automatic switching.

In general, in this version, the technical characteristics of the components have dramatically increased. These devices are now used by those who evacuate the wounded and move at night so as not to run the risk of being detected by some enemy drone and aiming artillery. These devices are also necessary for S-300, Smerch, Uragan systems, Harpoon, and Neptune missiles. And let's not forget about the traitors who disclose the positions of Ukrainian anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers for money. Therefore, all precious rockets, tugs, and launchers should move secretly so that no one sees them at night.


Photo: Gennady Suldin

"This low-altitude air defense system must do more to protect our rear every day than it did yesterday"

— Are you doing it at your own expense?

No, not only my own. Relatives of servicemembers are engaged in the purchase of Sova. They are mostly our clients. We collect something and give it to the military as volunteers. 

We also found a digitally coded walkie-talkie for the tactical link, which costs not €600 like Motorola, but €100. We are now providing the fourth brigade with these walkie-talkies.

We also tested about 30 models of binoculars and chose two models. In total, more than 700 binoculars were given to the army. Around 200 large monitors were given, which is a very obscure need. We began to supply air defense forces with monitors of 37, 43, 50, and 55 inches. At first, they did not believe this would make their work easier. This disbelief lasted two hours.

We are currently working on two developments. Countering Shahed kamikaze drones requires searchlights. We began at our peril and risk to purchase various models of searchlights, looked for ways to apply them, and consulted with the military. A week ago, a huge test of searchlights took place, which we called the "Battle of searchlights." It was attended by the commanders of the Air Defense Forces of the Navy, the Air Defense Forces of the Ground Forces South, and representatives of the Air Command. The winner was determined unanimously.

Our task is to increase the efficiency of mobile fire groups or stationary air defense posts and the efficiency of everything armed with machine guns, cannons, automatic weapons, and MANPADS. We were worried about this issue from the first days of the war. This low-altitude air defense system must do more daily to protect our rear than it did yesterday. It depends on people's training and their capabilities. And their capabilities appear from the equipment. No searchlight — they won't see, no binoculars — there won't be enough time, no walkie-talkie — they won't get targeting, no tablet — they won't see which route the missile is taking, where they should go and where to expect from it.

We encountered experienced military professionals, excellent engineers, and skilled managers and saw how the process could be organized in minutes. Why so? We have very motivated people who want to live. When people are motivated, they are not only not afraid, they do things they never dreamed of. I've seen it.

If we succeed in winning twice: firstly, we need to defeat Russia, and secondly, we need to make sure that it never was like before the war because it is very expensive. We have a rich country that lived for many years in such a way that many people were stealing. But it won't be like that now. We cannot carry so many parasites. And in this struggle, the motivation will be the same as in the battle with the Russians — we want to live.

— What mission do you see now?

We have a military project that can increase the probability of hitting an air target with an anti-aircraft gun or a large-caliber machine gun by five to seven times. I really want to do it. Every downed Shahed or Kalibr from an anti-aircraft gun or a large-caliber machine gun is a saved S-300 missile. This is a saved substation, a house. I firmly believe that Ukrainians, above all, value themselves, their family, and their well-being. And as long as this is the case, we will have a healthy state.


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