SensusQ analysis on the ZALA-421- 16E, ZALA-421-16E2 and ZALA-421- 16EM reconnaissance UAVs

Rainer Pihlakas
Oct 2, 2023

In earlier articles, we described the Orlan-10 and so-called Cartographer reconnaissance UAVs as well as the Lastochka and ZALA Lancet loitering munition. In this article, we take an in-depth look at the analysis of the ZALA Aero Group's 421-16E, 421-16E2 and 421-16EM UAVs, which offers insight into the development of Russian military technology.

According to the company's website, ZALA Aero Group manufactures several different reconnaissance UAVs, such as the ZALA 421-16E2, ZALA 421-16E5, ZALA 421-16E, ZALA 421-16EM, ZALA 421-08M, ZALA 421-04M, PALTSY 421-16 and PALTSY 421-20.[1] As according to open sources ZALA 421-16Е, ZALA 421-16Е2 and ZALA 421-16ЕM have been mainly intercepted during the Invasion of Ukraine, SensusQ focused its analysis on these three UAVs. The ZALA 421-16Е and ZALA 421-16E2 were first detected in May 2022 and the ZALA 421-16ЕM in October. Since then, the ZALA 421-16Е and ZALA 421-16Е2 have been frequently intercepted, but the ZALA 421-16ЕM remains a rarely seen UAV.[2] [3]

According to Russian servicemen, during the Invasion of Ukraine there was an urgent need to fly 30-50 km behind the front line to detect areas of concentration of manpower and armoured vehicles, as well as to detect artillery and counter-battery warfare. Chinese manufactured drones do not have sufficient range, but the domestic manufacturer ZALA 421-16E can. This is exactly the kind of UAV that the Russian military lacks, and the Russian military believes that having such a capability would allow them to fight the enemy more effectively.[4]

FIGURE 1 The wreckage of the first destroyed ZALA 421-16Е2 reconnaissance UAV in Ukraine on May 3, 2022.[3]

1. Background of ZALA Corporation

The main legal entity of ZALA Aero Group is CST LLC, established in 2010. The controlling owner with a 50.85% stake is Alexander Zakharov, the company's chief designer and the creator of the Lancet drones (the remaining stake belongs to the Kalashnikov Concern). Alexander's wife Svetlana is a co-owner of the company. The company's website says that its drones are purchased to search for missing people, extinguish fires, monitor oil pipelines, etc. Among the customers are the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations, The Investigative Committee and state-owned companies. Since 2011, СST has concluded government contracts worth 3.3 billion rubbles. But now the main buyer is the military. In 2022-2023, CST sold its drones to the military for 5.3 billion rubbles, the Central Scientific Research Institute of Chemistry and Mechanics — 4.3 billion rubbles, Central Scientific Research Institute of the Ministry of Defence and Concern Kalashnikov for 0.5 billion rubbles each.

Alexander Zakharov has been involved in the UAV business for more than 15 years. His children - eldest son Nikita and daughter Maria - are also involved in the ZALA Aero Group business. Their companies today are the largest suppliers of CST LLC. In 2014-2015, Nikita Zakharov was deputy CEO of ZALA Aero and demonstrated UAVs to then Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Now he is the owner of Aeroscan, whose revenues skyrocketed tenfold since The Invasion of Ukraine, reaching 3.8 billion rubbles in 2022. For 2022-2023, Aeroscan has signed contracts with CST LLC for 2.5 billion rubbles. Maria Zakharova's company Orion has also doubled its revenues, reaching 400 million rubbles in 2022, and has contracts with CST LLC for almost 500 million rubbles.[5]

Interestingly, Svetlana and Lavrentii Zakharov, the wife and youngest son of Alexander Zakharov, have owned a £1.5 million apartment in a prestigious area of London since 2018. The UK has imposed sanctions on UAV manufacturer CST LLC, but not on the Zakharov family. Lavrentii Zakharov’s has been living abroad since at least 2015, when he was 16 years old. He graduated from high school in the UK and went on to higher education, earning a BA in politics, sociology and East European studies from University College London, followed by an MA in conflict studies from the London School of Economics. In July 2021, Lavrentii went to work for UN agencies in New York and Rome, and from May 2023 he joined the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) in Geneva.[6]

FIGURE 2 Alexander Zakharov, controlling owner of the ZALA Aero Group.

2. UAV's Description

2.1 General Description of ZALA 421-16E[7] [8] [9] [10]

The first tests of the ZALA 421-16E were conducted in 2011. The technical characteristics of the ZALA 421-16E allow this aircraft to be considered a vivid representative of multifunctional UAVs used for surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, guarding military bases, state borders and convoys. With a claimed flight duration of more than 3.5 hours the ZALA 421-16E would be capable of covering 200 km. In any case, it is designed to conduct electro-optical reconnaissance within 50 km of the target at any time of the day or night allegedly with the transmission of two streams of video images in real time. The UAV performs tasks that require aerial reconnaissance in mountainous areas, tracking the movement of ground forces and equipment, recognition of objects in complex terrain, aerial photography, and fire adjustments. Confirmation or denial of operational information, obtaining certain information about the enemy, such as: the exact location, strength, routes and schedule of movement.

The UAV, equipped with a dual-frequency GPS receiver and a type 16E camera, provides good positioning accuracy based on a finished photo map, which allows operations to be planned according to the up-to-date cartographic information. Thanks to the built-in target tracking module, the UAV automatically tracks static and moving objects. In the absence of a satnav signal, the UAV will continue to perform its mission.

2.2 General Description of ZALA 421-16E2[9] [11] [12]

The ZALA 421-16E2 unmanned aerial vehicle is one of the latest developments in the field of UAVs. It was first publicly displayed at the International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) in July 2017. This complex allows solving a wide range of tasks: electro-optical reconnaissance in the daytime and at night, aerial photography of terrain, target detection, fire correction, radio relay function, providing information to ground forces using personal position control and communication devices.

One of the main features of ZALA 421-16E2 is its low weight - 7.5 kg. The range of video data transmission in difficult meteorological operating conditions is at least 30 km, and for control at least 50 km. Silent mode makes it possible to explore a region at low altitudes without the risk of visual or acoustical disclosure of the UAV.

ZALA Corporation has claimed, the big advantage of the new UAV is its high continuous flight duration of 4 hours, which, if true, would be a significant achievement for such a small UAV. In addition, the ZALA 421-16E2 is characterized by its ease of launch. ZALA 421-16E2 is launched using an elastic catapult. Since parachute landings are often harsh and destructive, this UAV's landing is cushioned by an airbag that reduces potential damage to the payload and fuselage.

ZALA 421-16E2 has a built-in inertial system, a radio direction finder, a self-diagnostic sensor unit that ensures complete autonomy of the UAV from GPS/GLONASS satnav systems and guarantees the fulfilment of the assigned tasks. The UAV can be controlled by a real-time controller (КРВ-7), the architecture of which excludes the use of operating systems in the control loop, which greatly increases security, which also uses multi-channel encrypted communication and data transmission. The gimbal consists of an EO sensor with 60x optical zoom and 60mm IR sensor.

FIGURE 3 ZALA 421-16E, ZALA 421-16E2 and ZALA 421-16EM.

2.3 General Description of ZALA 421-16EM[8] [9] [13] [14]

The ZALA 421-16EM aircraft was presented at the International Exhibition of Security, Integrated Safety 2012 in Moscow. It is an upgrade of the ZALA 421-16E and differs from its predecessor in a few of significant improvements both in wing aerodynamics and in increasing the target payload. Its main advantage is the reduction in size while maintaining high tactical and technical characteristics.

The UAV is designed to conduct electro optical reconnaissance within 25 km of the target at any time of the day and night and allegedly transmits two video streams in real time. The UAV performs operational reconnaissance tasks within a few kilometres of the home base, which ensures the safety of personnel and equipment. The UAV enables aerial photography at low altitudes. The UAV provides monitoring of the necessary area, the safety of the search team when inspecting the enemy, and disclosure of an escape attempt when blocking the area. Thanks to the built-in target tracking module, the UAV automatically tracks static and moving objects.

The ZALA 421-16EM is launched using an elastic catapult. The launch safety is enhanced by handles integrated into the UAV body. A small-sized autonomous beacon (contract) built into the airframe is a radio transmitter with a 170 mm long whip antenna and allows detection at a distance of up to 3 km in case of an emergency landing of the UAV out of sight.

UAV automatic control system (autopilot): supports two flight modes: semi-automatic and automatic. The autopilot transmits GPS coordinates, power supply voltage, angular position of the vehicle in space, UAV speed, wind speed, and flight altitude above the underlying surface from the launch point via radio communication in real time. If the connection is lost, the autopilot automatically performs the procedure of returning the UAV to the launch point.

2.4 Specifications[7] [11] [13]

3. Operational history

Prior to the Invasion of Ukraine, UAVs of the ZALA 421-16E family were used mainly for peaceful purposes. For example, on Mar 22, 2017, a video was published about how police of the Krasnodar Krai used ZALA 421-16E UAV to monitor traffic on intercity highways.[15] Another similar video about the use of ZALA 421-16E by Russian police was published on July 12, 2018.[16] On May 14, 2019 the Zala 421-16E was unveiled in Yakutia, where First Deputy Prime Minister of the Republic of Sakha Alexei Kolodeznikov stated that the ZALA UAV would be used to monitor ice conditions on the Lena and Kolyma rivers, forest fires, as well as to search and rescue lost people.[17]

From 13 to 17 September, joint Russian-Kyrgyz exercises on the use of ZALA 421-16Е in the fight against drug trafficking were held in the Issyk-Kul oblast of the Kyrgyz Republic It was stated that this particular UAV model was the most widely used in Rosgvardiya units. As part of the exercise, ZALA AERO employees together with employees of the Rosgvardia's special purpose aviation units, conducted methodological and practical training on tracking down criminals, search and rescue operations, communications in hard-to-reach areas, aerial photography, the use of geographic information systems, mapping of wild cannabis growing areas, and other special techniques for using UAVs in official activities.[18]

In military purposes, ZALA 421-16E was used during a surprise combat readiness check of the Airborne Assault Brigade of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan. The Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Uzbekistan also demonstrated the ZALA 421-16E reconnaissance UAV.[19] In addition, on February 05, 2021, a ZALA 421-16EM crashed in Hama province of Syria due to a technical malfunction.[20]

During the invasion of Ukraine, the first ZALA 421-16E2 UAV was shot down by Ukrainian Defence Forces in northern Ukraine on May 3, 2022.[3] Another ZALA 421-16Е2 was shot down by the 93rd Separated Kholodnyi Yar Mechanized Brigade near Izium on July 24, 2022.[21] On June 30, 2022 a complete set of ZALA 421-16E UAVs was captured by Ukrainian soldiers during the liberation of the Snake Island,[22] similar to the complete Orlan-10 set that was captured by the Ukrainians in Izjum on September 11.[23] As of September 27, 2023, according to the Oryx website, which takes into account only documented losses, 39 ZALA 421-16Е and 2 ZALA 421-16ЕM were destroyed or captured during the Invasion of Ukraine.[2]

4. Conclusion

It is difficult to assess to what extent the ZALA 421-16E family UAVs are the product of ZALA Corporation R&D, but the fact remains that their design suspiciously resembles the Orbiter 2 UAV of the Israeli company "Aeronautics Defense Systems".[24] While the ZALA UAVs have a significantly longer claimed flight duration, which, on the other hand, has yet to be proven. It is quite possible that ZALA UAVs achieve 4 hours of flight time in ideal weather conditions with all payloads used for batteries, while the actual combat flight duration does not exceed 3 hours, which is normal for small UAVs such as those of the ZALA 421-16E family.

It is not known how many ZALA 421-16E / ZALA 421-16E2 and ZALA 421-16EM UAVs has been manufactured by this date, but as of 2019, Russia was reportedly operating more than a thousand ZALA drones.[25] As of September 27, 2023 according to the Oryx website, which It is not known how many ZALA 421-16E / ZALA 421-16E2 and ZALA 421-16EM drones were produced by this point, but as of 2019, more than a thousand ZALA drones were operated in Russia, according to some reports. [25] As of September 27, 2023, according to the Oryx website, which takes into account only documented losses, 39 ZALA 421-16Е and 2 ZALA 421-16ЕM were destroyed or captured during The Invasion of Ukraine.[2] Notably, Oryx does not distinguish ZALA 421-16Е and ZALA 421-16Е2 UAVs, so the number 39 reflects the losses of both UAVs together. Compared to Orlan-10 UAV losses (160 in September 2023), significantly fewer ZALA 421-16E family UAVs has been intercepted in Ukraine, but this is likely due to their smaller size, shorter flight range, quieter electric motor, and lower thermal signature and does not necessarily mean that there are 5 times fewer ZALA 421-16E family UAVs operating in Ukraine than Orlan-10 UAVs.

The latest samples of ZALA 421-16E intercepted in Ukraine are equipped with 30-year-old parts, which indicates constructive degradation and serious problems of the Russian military-industrial complex in the field of production, modernisation and maintenance of UAVs. The high degree of wear and tear of several microchips and chips in Russian drones demonstrates the effectiveness of sanctions against Russia. Manufacturers are forced to look for ways to circumvent sanctions and obtain even the simplest components. Because of this, Russian invaders have switched to the tactic of "just wherever it flies."[26]

The ZALA 421-16E family reconnaissance UAVs are valuable assets for Russian forces operating in Ukraine. However, limited production capabilities and questionable overall quality do not meet the requirements of modern warfare. Compared to the most common Orlan-10 UAV, the ZALA 421-16 family UAVs have much better stealth characteristics, but the short tactical range can be noted as a disadvantage. The ZALA 421-16E family of UAVs still outperform other UAVs accessible for Russian forces by some characteristics, and therefore will be used in propaganda campaigns attempting to present the Russian armed forces to the domestic audience as a powerful and effective “second army of the world”.


[1] Беспилотные самолеты. Sep 2023. [Online]

[2] Attack On Europe: Documenting Russian Equipment Losses During The Russian Invasion Of Ukraine. Sep 2023. [Online]

[3] The Ukrainian servicemen shot down an enemy ZALA 421-16E2 drone. May 2022. [Online]

[4] Беспилотники ZALA 421-16E в специальной военной операции. Aug 2022. [Online]

[5] Who, How and Where Buys Components for the Deadliest Suicide Drones in the Russian Army. Jun 2023. [Online]

[6] The Family of the Russian Suicide Drones’ Creator Owns Real Estate in the “Unfriendly” UK. Jul 2023. [Online]

[7] Беспилотное воздушное судно ZALA 421-16E. Sep 2023. [Online]

[8] Hall of aero groups. Information about the company ZALA AERO. Unmanned aerial systems "Inspector". Sep 2023. [Online]


[10] БЛАZАLА 421-16Е: прорыв в области аэродинамики. Sep 2011. [Online]

[11] Беспилотное воздушное судноZALA 421-16E2. Sep 2023. [Online]

[12] Новейший российский комплекс беспилотной разведки и наблюдения самолетного типа ZALA 421-16Е2. Jun 2017. [Online]

[13] Беспилотное воздушное судно ZALA 421-16ЕМ. Sep 2023. [Online]

[14] ZALA 421-16EM Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. Sep 2023. [Online]

[15] YouTube: В Красноярском крае за движением на междугородних трассах следят беспилотники. Mar 2017. [Online]

[16] YouTube: bezpilotniki. Jul 2018. [Online]

[17] YouTube: Беспилотный летательный аппарат Zala 421-16E представили в Якутии. May 2019. [Online]

[18]Беспилотники ZALA в борьбе с незаконным оборотом наркотиков: совместные российско-киргизские учения. Sep 2021. [Online]

[19]Разведывательные беспилотные летательные аппараты ZALA 421-16(Е) в Узбекистане. Nov 2020. [Online]

[20] В Сирии разбился российский БПЛА ZALA 421-16EM (видео). Feb 2021. [Online]

[21] Modern Russian ZALA 421-16Е2 UAV neutralized near Izium. Jul 2022. [Online]

[22] YouTube: "Ми їх дотисли і змусили покинути ці території", Буданов |СПЕЦОПЕРАЦІЯ "ЗМІЇНИЙ".​⁠@Raminaeshakzai. Jun 2023. [Online]

[23]SensusQ analysis on the Orlan-10. Nov 2022. [Online]

[24]Aeronautics: Orbiter-1K. Sep 2023. [Online]

[25] Air Recognition: Kalashnikov creates new anti drone gun. 2019. [Online]

[26] Деградация российского ВПК: Генштаб оценил "импортозамещение" в РФ на примере беспилотников. Apr 2023. [Online]

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