By Nailia Bagirova
BAKU (Reuters) - Ukraine's destruction of Russian artillery systems and armoured vehicles with Turkish Bayraktar TB2 aerial drones has made "the whole world" a customer, according to its designer.
Selcuk Bayraktar, who runs the Istanbul firm Baykar with his brother Haluk, said the drones had shown how technology was revolutionising modern warfare.
"Bayraktar TB2 is doing what it was supposed to do – taking out some of the most advanced anti-aircraft systems and advanced artillery systems and armoured vehicles," he told Reuters in English beside the new Akinci drone at an exhibition in Baku. "The whole world is a customer."
At least for a time, the TB2, which has a 12-metre wingspan and can soar to 25,000 feet before swooping to destroy tanks and artillery with laser-guided armour-piercing bombs, helped undermine Russia's overwhelming military superiority.
Such is the drone's renown that it became the subject of a patriotic expletive-strewn hit song in Ukraine that mocked Russian troops, with the chorus "Bayraktar, Bayraktar".
Beyond satire, the Bayraktar drone has received attention from Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the defence ministry has mentioned it at least 45 times in public since the war began on Feb. 24.
Baykar, founded in the 1980s by Bayraktar's father, Ozdemir Bayraktar, began to focus on unmanned aircraft in 2005 as Turkey sought to strengthen its local defence industry.
The TB2 has been such a factor in the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh as well as Ukraine that it now spearheads Turkey's global defence export push.
President Tayyip Erdogan says international demand is huge for the TB2 and the newer Akinci.
Bayraktar, who is married to Erdogan's daughter, said Baykar can produce 200 TB2 drones a year.
COMBAT AIRCRAFT AND TAXIS
He said he was proud that the drones had been used in Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave of Turkey's ally Azerbaijan where Baku's forces recaptured swathes of territory in 2020, and in Ukraine.
"It is an illegal invasion so TB2 is helping the honourable people of Ukraine defend their country," he said.
"The illegal occupation of Karabakh was like a heart wound since our youth. And as engineers developing the technology, it is an honour to have helped our brothers and sisters here to regain their land."
Russia two weeks ago touted a new generation of laser weapons including a mobile system that Moscow said could blind orbiting satellites and destroy drones.
But Bayraktar, who was born in Istanbul and studied at the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said such weapons were ineffective against the TB2.
"Their ranges are limited so if your sensory and munition range is longer, they are not going to be effective," he said.
Baykar is working on a TB3, which has foldable wings and can take off or land on short-runway aircraft carriers, and an unmanned combat aircraft called MUIS or Kizilelma.
"Inshallah, the first flight of Kizilelma will be next year, and TB3 either by the end of this year or the beginning of next year," Bayraktar said.
"If you look at the longer time horizon, we are working on taxi drones – for that we need to develop more higher-level autonomy technology – which is AI basically – but it will revolutionise how people will be transported in cities."
Russia's invasion has killed thousands of people, displaced millions, and raised fears of a direct confrontation between Russia and the United States.
Putin says Washington was using Ukraine to threaten Russia through NATO enlargement, and that Moscow had to defend Russian-speakers from persecution.
Ukraine and its Western allies reject these as baseless pretexts to invade a sovereign country.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Kevin Liffey)