SpaceX has taken steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for controlling drones in the region during the country’s war with Russia, SpaceX’s president said Wednesday.
SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service, which has provided Ukraine’s military with broadband communications in its defence against Russia’s military, was “never never meant to be weaponized,” Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said during a conference in Washington, DC.
“However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” she said.
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Speaking later with reporters, Shotwell referred to reports that the Ukrainian military had used the Starlink service to control drones.
Ukraine has made effective use of unmanned aircraft for spotting enemy positions, targeting long-range fires and dropping bombs.
“There are things that we can do to limit their ability to do that,” she said, referring to Starlink’s use with drones. “There are things that we can do, and have done.”
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Shotwell declined to say what measures SpaceX had taken.
Using Starlink with drones went beyond the scope of an agreement SpaceX has with the Ukrainian government, Shotwell said, adding the contract was intended for humanitarian purposes such as providing broadband internet to hospitals, banks and families affected by Russia’s invasion.
“We know the military is using them for comms, and that’s ok,” she said. “But our intent was never to have them use it for offensive purposes.”
SpaceX has privately shipped truckloads of Starlink terminals to Ukraine, allowing the country’s military to communicate by plugging them in and connecting them with the nearly 4,000 satellites SpaceX has launched into low-Earth orbit so far.
Governments including the United States and France have paid for other shipments of Starlink terminals on top of those funded privately by SpaceX.
Russia has attempted to jam Starlink signals in the region, though SpaceX countered by hardening the service’s software, Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, has said.
Asked if SpaceX had anticipated Starlink’s use for offensive purposes in Ukraine when deciding to ship terminals into conflict zones, Shotwell said: “We didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about it. Our Starlink team may have, I don’t know. But we learned pretty quickly.”
Starlink had suffered services outages in Ukraine late last year, for reasons SpaceX did not explain.
Asked if those outages were related to SpaceX’s efforts to curb the offensive use of Starlink, Shotwell said: “I don’t want to answer it because I’m not sure I know the answer.”