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Civilian Tech Mobilization in Ukraine

Rosie the Riveter, US World War II poster (source)

As was the case in the US during World War II, civilian volunteers are making important contributions to the Ukrainian war effort.

On February 8, 2022, the first truckload of Starlink terminals arrived in Kyiv. A week later they were being used. By April 2022, there were 5,000 terminals in Ukraine, and 42,000 as of April 2023. (At this point, SpaceX and Ukraine have gone silent. Neither ChatGPT4, Gemini, Copilot, Perplexity, nor I could find a current terminal count).

Whatever the number of terminals in the country, they require support. They were purchased, delivered, and set up. Users were trained, and they require real-time access for troubleshooting and assistance. Broken terminals have to be repaired, and some terminals have been modified. Civilian tech volunteers are doing much of this work.

There are several Starlink support centers throughout Ukraine. For obvious reasons, they are secretive about their work, but one large one is Nebogray in Lviv. Neborgray has repaired 5,976 Starlink terminals and converted 516 for portable use mounted on vehicle roofs. In addition to the service centers, there are many individual craftsmen and small services throughout the country.

The work at Nebogry is performed by highly qualified volunteers. For example, Oleg Kutkov. is a senior engineer at Ubiquiti, and he devotes his spare time to Starlink research. He bought what may have been the first Starlink terminal in Ukraine on eBay before the war and does teardowns and research studies like this recent unboxing and review of the Version 4 Starlink terminal on his blog. Oleg is an active participant in the Starlink mailing list and the 15,700-member People’s Starlink Facebook group.

The Facebook group was created by The People’s Starlink project, which is involved in refurbishing, adapting, repairing, and providing technical support, as well as procuring and upgrading satellite communication terminals from SpaceX’s Starlink for the needs of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and other defenders of Ukraine.

With the help of many contributors, including Oleg, People’s Starlink founder Vladimir Stepanets has written a 246-page Starlink Handbook for Military Users, which begins with a message from the author “Greetings defenders of Ukraine!”

Starlink Handbook for Military Users

The handbook is divided into eight richly illustrated modules:

  • What is Starlink?
  • Starlink Terminals
  • Powering Starlink terminals
  • Expanding and collapsing Starlink terminals
  • Terminal management and settings
  • Safety of using Starlink terminals
  • Diagnostics and problem-solving
  • Starlink in network infrastructures

This is the second (and first public) edition of the handbook and it will continue evolving. It is currently available in Ukrainian, but Stepanets is discussing translations into several other languages and plans to publish it as a book.

“Point of Invincibility” in Bucha, Ukraine

In response to Russian attacks on critical infrastructure, Ukraine has established thousands of “Points of Invincibility” tent structures equipped with generators. The government is working to provide a Starlink terminal for each of them in addition to heat, water, lighting, and more.

The IT Army of Ukraine is an international, loosely connected organization of Ukrainian and foreign ethical hackers. They have created an online service that Ukrainian allies can use to generate denial-of-service attacks. Of course, one man’s “ethical hacker” is another man’s “terrorist,” and Ukraine has petitioned The International Criminal Court to investigate Russian cyberattacks as war crimes. The International Committee of the Red Cross has published rules of engagement for civilian hackers involved in conflicts, and the IT Army will make the best effort to follow the rules.

It was obvious from the early days of the war that two technologies—Starlink and drones—were going to play major roles. Model airplane hobbyists created an air reconnaissance unit within the army when fighting began in 2014 and Starlink enabled surveillance drones to relay target coordinates to artillery units.

Today, non-technical people like Violetta Oliynyk, an artist and jeweler, are assembling drones in their spare time. She learned drone assembly by taking an online course from Prometheus, a nine-year-old education site with over 400 courses online. (The course was developed for the Victory Drones project). Social Drones UA is another volunteer drone assembly project. They vet, then train and support potential assemblers with a how-to video and online support.

Ukrainians are also assembling battery packs from batteries in discarded vapes, which is reminiscent of Americans saving and turning in excess cooking fat to be used in explosives during World War II.

Civilian volunteers and Ukrainian tech companies have pivoted to military innovation and production. Ukraine was technologically advanced before the war and has been forced to innovate and improvise. If Ukraine survives, the tech sector will thrive when peace comes.

I’ve presented a few examples of civilian tech support for the Ukrainian resistance to the Russian invasion. There are many others, and if you are so inclined, the Internet makes it possible for you to contribute to them. Many project Websites have contribution links, and you can also consult Reddit’s list of vetted Ukrainen charities.

Update Mar 8, 2024:

Oleg Kutkov was among the “people embodying the spirit of Ukraine,” chosen by Time Magazine as Person of the Year for 2022. Time wrote:

Ukraine first came back online when Elon Musk activated his low-altitude Starlink satellite internet, as he would later do in Iran. The net was crucial to Ukrainian forces, who were issued the compact, portable Starlink antennas. But in Kyiv, self-­described “tech and space nerd” Oleg Kutkov reconstructed a Starlink dish from eBay, and after contacting SpaceX support, caught a signal. “I was the first civilian user of Starlink here in Ukraine,” says Kutkov, 34, who began a Face­book group that has grown to 8,700 people. “They read about me in the news, and they were all worrying about connectivity because the internet is really important here to get all the news, to get notifications and so on.”

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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