New Mexico’s growing film industry has been good to Daniel Luke Fitch. Fitch has served as a cinematographer, director of photography, camera operator and more on everything from small local films (2014’s documentary short “Pie Lady of Pie Town”) to large Hollywood features (2014’s Those Who Wish Me Dead) to popular TV series (“Waco,” “Roswell, New Mexico”). But it is his pioneering work as a drone camera operator, building and flying remote aerial cameras through his Santa Fe-based companies Altitude FX and New Mexico Cine Drone, that has made him such an in-demand technician in the film and TV biz.
Recently, Fitch decided to make a major pivot, using his technical skills to help the war effort in Ukraine. Watching the war unfold on television, with the understaffed and underequipped Ukrainian forces taking on the superior Russian military, Luke felt he had something to contribute. “I’m not sure if there was any one factor that inspired this whole project,” says Fitch. “I feel pretty strongly that this war is the ultimate trial between democracy and autocracy, and it will be very bad for the world if Ukraine and the West fail. I had been traveling a lot internationally—just before COVID I had been filming the protests in Hong Kong. I think that’s a good example of a free society that the world failed to stand up for and protect, and now it’s gone forever. Then this situation came along and it seemed like there were ways we could help, so I guess I just decided to take a more active role this time around.”
Fitch and his team have been working for about 10 years with remote drones and have “gotten pretty decent with it. Especially modifying and building them from scratch.” At the same time, drones have become an increasingly essential component in modern warfare. Canadian-based commercial drone manufacturer Draganfly says that, across the Ukraine, drones are providing critical work for humanitarian operations. The company recently announced it was supplying technology to detect the rising number of Russian-laid landmines and unexploded munitions scattered across the Ukraine. In a press release, the company announced that, “Besides providing medical response drones to the humanitarian relief agency Revived Soldiers Ukraine (www.rsukraine.com), Draganfly’s multi-purpose drone campaign to include de-mining technology seeks to increase the speed and effectiveness in getting medical supplies and other assistance to victims quickly.”
“Considering how important drones are becoming in the war over there, I’d consider it somewhat unethical of us not to use those acquired skills in one way or another.” says Fitch. But, the filmmaker had no direct contacts in the Ukraine. Where to start? Amazingly, the very first person Fitch reached out to—an officer and mechanic whose name popped up in a news article—ended up being the only contact he ever needed. “I think this was extremely lucky,” says Fitch. “I’ve heard of people here, or even there on the ground, who have had a lot of trouble getting official approval for what they’re trying to do.”
Fitch proposed an idea to use his radio-control knowledge to build remotely operated vehicles that could be used to sweep Russian-seeded minefields in and around Ukrainian cities. The Ukraine is now believed to be one of the most mined countries in the world. The number of Russian-laid landmines remains unknown, but by mid-May Ukrainian authorities reported nearly 80,000 mines and other explosive ordinance had been disabled.
Fitch recalls the origins of the equipment he wanted to employ in the Ukraine: “We had this crazy rig we had developed for movie stunts but never used. Actually, that project came out of the work we do on Zozobra—those guys enlisted us to motorize the eyes a few years back, because the puppetry controls were interfering with the head movement. So we got really good at controlling big motors with normal radios for RC planes or drones. At some point we decided to try using them to drive a car, maybe someday drive one off a cliff or something for a movie shoot. Anyway, after Russia invaded Ukraine, I realized this system might be useful for clearing minefields and other tasks. I made some military contacts in Kyiv, and they were very interested in the idea. It’s a relatively simple design, so at this point they can build more or modify the system without our help.”
Back in May of this year, Fitch packed up his surplus movie gear and got on a plane to Kyiv. “We brought four of these kits out there, and I had pretty limited time to get them working,” says Fitch. He also had to “find a car with an automatic transmission (kinda difficult in Ukraine), and do a demonstration for the Army.” Fitch does not speak Ukrainian, so he had to hire a translator, who ended up being a good friend. “He made things much easier. He’s also an artist and a painter, but his studio was in Bucha and presumably destroyed. So now he’s working out of a volunteer center doing art in the same style as the camo nets they were making there by hand. Very cool pieces, he’s been selling them in fundraisers and I hope to bring a few back with me.”
Fitch’s time on the ground in Kyiv was an eye-opener for the filmmaker. “It’s hard to describe the vibe in Western Ukraine right now,” he relates. “They’re far from the front lines, so life can continue as normal to some extent. The Russians blew up a power station in the city on the day I arrived, and the smell lingered for hours. Every day after that there was at least one air raid siren, but no more strikes. Cafes and bars were open so you could easily forget there was a war going on for a few minutes or an hour, but sooner or later there would be a reminder of some kind. All the historical landmarks were protected by metal sheeting and sandbags. Lots of public funerals—that kind of thing.”
Now Fitch is planning to return to the Ukraine with a new round of technical assistance for the embattled government forces. The trip is scheduled for late August. “My buddy Rob Mesa is going with me this time. There was simply too much equipment for one person to transport.” Although Fitch can’t say much about his latest plans—for reasons of security and safety—he expects it to be a productive trip. “If there’s any free time between the work stuff, we plan to bring some camera equipment and do some documentary filming in areas the Russians previously occupied … with a drone, too, of course.”
Between then and now, Fitch hopes to raise some more funds for the trip. “I’ve basically been self-funding this whole operation up until now,” he says. “Eventually, we were fielding multiple unrelated equipment requests from Ukraine that were growing in cost and complexity, and that was when we finally broke our silence and decided to do a public fundraiser.” Fitch teamed up with Ukranian Americans of New Mexico—a nonprofit organization dedicated to organizing rallys and marches, shipping food, vitamins, medical supplies and even school supplies back to the Ukraine, and generally reminding people that the war is still raging. Together, they organized a “Drones for the Ukraine” fundraising campaign at Altar Spirits Distillery in Santa Fe on July 19.
Daria Derebera, a board member of UANM, helped put the event together. “Luke contacted us through our Facebook page with the request of supporting a project he already started, and we were glad to put our efforts together to help him make this idea come true,” says Derebera. “We are very inspired of his idea and work, because humanitarian questions are important ones; but effective defending is primary, because it is about saving lives of soldiers and civilians! If this project will come true, we could accelerate the end of war.”
The fundraiser ended up being a solid kick-starter for the next phase of Fitch’s efforts. “It was crazy last-minute due to outside constraints, so we had no idea what to expect,” admits Fitch. “In the end we had an awesome turnout and raised significantly more than we expected that night. Still a long way from our goal, but it was a great start! We hope to do another one in Albuquerque very soon.” Until dates for that are decided, the fundraising campaign continues online. The goal is to raise $12,000. According to Fitch, “That money will be used to pay for drone components and extra batteries. We also plan to bring out some medical supplies and other humanitarian goods, so leftover funds will be allocated to that. We are also accepting donations—specifically tourniquets, burn bandages, medical scissors, bone injectors and a few other badly needed items.”
At this point in the war effort, any help is greatly welcomed and appreciated. “Ukrainians that are staying now in Ukraine are divided into categories,” explains Derebera. “One of them is all trying to live a normal life: working, spending time with kids, even going to picnics and trying to not focus on [the fact] that they are living under risk of being killed any moment. Other ones are living under huge stress. During the day and every single evening, while they’re going to sleep, they are thinking about will they wake up tomorrow or not.” Derebera, a lawyer and new mother who came to the U.S. just a few short months ago, says that, back in her home country, “People are living in awful conditions without electricity or water. And sometimes they gather rain water to wash something or to cook something. Some people whose houses were destroyed live just outside due to it’s summer now and they can sleep outside.” Nevertheless, she points out, “The Ukrainian nation is so gathered: They’re helping each other, relatives helping each other, voluntary movements are very strong, and people are trying to help however they can.” Derebera is also quick to add that, “I should say the international support is very valuable too! Ukrainians are very grateful for counties that are helping a lot!”
If you’d like to help the “Drones for Ukraine” effort, go to linktr.ee/nmdronesforua.