Dronamics just got a license to operate in Europe. Its Black Swan cargo delivery drone is the size of a 2-seater aircraft and carries 800 pounds for 1500 miles. It’s also 50% cheaper with 60% fewer emissions and 80% faster than standard airfreight.
We chat about …
- The Black Swan cargo drone
- Why is it so much cheaper, faster, and less polluting?
- Dronamics has raised $40M. One of its investors is the European Union itself. It now have a license. What are the next steps?
- Concerns and challenges of drone cargo delivery?
- Will the Black Swan ever be an EV?
- Safety and hacking … how are you protecting this drone?
- What kind of ground support is required?
- And more …
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Talking to Dronamics CEO Svilen Rangelov about Black Swan, the company new (and big) cargo drone
John Koetsier: Drones are almost certainly the future of delivery, but that future might be here a little quicker than we think. A drone cargo airline just received a license to operate in Europe.
Hello and welcome to TechFirst. My name is John Koetsier.
Most drone delivery startups that I’ve talked about and written about are focused on last mile delivery: small packages, short distances, bringing a coffee to somebody, or a book, or maybe a laptop or something like that.
One, however, has plans to become a full blown cargo airline. All its aircraft are drones, but they’re not the kind that you fit in your hand. These ones carry almost 800 pounds over 1,500 miles. They do so 50% cheaper, with 60% fewer emissions, and 80% faster than standard air freight. Here to chat is CEO and co-founder Svilen Rangelov. Welcome, Svilen.
Svilen Rangelov: Thank you, John. It’s great to be here.
John Koetsier: Pumped to have you. Talk about Black Swan, your aircraft.
Svilen Rangelov: The Black Swan is essentially a fixed wing drone. It’s 50 feet wingspan, 25 feet long. It has a payload of around 770 pounds or about 350 kilograms, and can go as far as 1,550 miles or about 2,500 kilometers. It’s essentially the size of a 2-seater general aviation, 2-seater airplane. And it can land on very short runways around 400 meters or 1300 feet, and they don’t even need to be paved.
So, it’s essentially like a bush plane, but the cockpit stays on the ground and so it’s all cargo inside.
John Koetsier: Are you building this from scratch? Are you using another aircraft as the basis of it? How are you manufacturing?
Svilen Rangelov: We’re building this from scratch. It’s a clean sheet design. And the reason for that is we looked even before we started the company, and that was nine years ago, people had already put autopilots on small Cessnas and other aircraft. The problem with that is that you inherit all the design decisions for airplanes that were meant to have humans on board.
A lot more parts, a lot more complexity, different materials, different maintenance schedules, different shapes.
So, we figured out it’s so unnatural to fly that you need to be super optimized for the one thing that you’re supposed to do. And in our case, we decided the one thing we will do is to carry goods, and therefore we needed a completely new kind of design so that we can extract any possible efficiency from any possible place.
John Koetsier: Is it a prop? Is it a jet?
Svilen Rangelov: It’s a prop. We use an existing engine made by Rotax. So it’s a prop, 140 horsepower, four cylinders, internal combustion engine. It uses regular gasoline, but also interestingly can work with a hundred percent synthetic gasoline. And we’re also experimenting with hydrogen and so on, because sustainability is super important for us.
John Koetsier: Why is it so much less polluting and cheaper? Is it that you don’t have to put a cockpit in there, fly a pilot? Can it be much more aerodynamic?
Svilen Rangelov: There’s several things. First, because it’s a custom design, we’ve optimized for exactly the type of goods that we’re going to be carrying.
So, in the history of aviation, almost every single airplane that was ever designed was made for humans first. And then cargo was always like, Well, maybe we’ll rip out the seats and see how much we can fit inside. Here we’ve built the aircraft around the cargo, and we also were able to use design techniques to make sure that it has a lot higher lift than typical.
Essentially, we create a very fuel-efficient aircraft, not only from the sustainability priority, but also from the just operating cost priority because ultimately, cargo customers they’re very price sensitive as well. And then there’s the actual place of this in the supply chain.
Typically, you have very big airplanes that get offloaded onto very big trucks, but that very big truck doesn’t stop in front of your home and ring your doorbell. It makes an additional handover to a last-mile vehicle. So the reason why we size the aircraft to be able to carry around 800 pounds or 350 kilos is because that’s the payload of one of those last-mile cars that are like the panel vans, like Volkswagen Caddy or Renault Kangoo. And those are the most popular last-mile vehicles around the world.
So, when you’re using us, you’re probably skipping steps in the supply chain as well. So goods are not moving all these useless kilometers. They’re going about in a lot more direct fashion. So all these factors end up contributing to much lower emissions, 60% even when we use gasoline, and up to 100% when we use SAF and hydrogen.
John Koetsier: Super interesting. So you seem to be designing for a dedicated payload for a single customer? Or is this also usable if you just need to get goods from A to B and from B it goes out to 10 or 15 or 20 different places?
Svilen Rangelov: We’re starting with single customer per flight and our operating model is precise that we’re operating as an airline, so we’re not selling the drones.
So, each flight will be dedicated to a particular customer with whom we would have these block space agreements or long term commitments for particular frequencies on a particular route. Now, as we get more used to the operations, we’ll be able to do consolidations of different customers on the same flight, but that’s phase two.
John Koetsier: What kind of customers need this sort of thing? Are you talking about remote worksites? Are you talking factories? Retail?
Svilen Rangelov: Yeah, the low-hanging fruit definitely is in high value goods. So, time critical shipments. A lot of that could be spare parts within the industry. So, for example, your production line breaks down, it can easily cost six digits or higher per hour if you don’t get it back up and running.
And then there’s obviously pharmaceuticals, medical. We’ll be doing a trial next year in the UK in Scotland as part of a consortium for the NHS there. And yet, because of the unit economics our aircraft is able to achieve, we’re even relevant for a lot of the lower value goods and a lot of high frequency purchases, e-commerce, and so on.
And that’s really the true breakthrough in our innovation because a lot of people can make a very expensive airplane. Very few can make a very cost effective airplane.
John Koetsier: Talk about some of the safety factors. You’ve got an autonomous drone here, basically… I don’t know if it’s autonomous, actually, maybe it’s fly by wire and let’s talk about that … but you’ve got a drone aircraft that’s flying around. It’s fairly decent size. It’s got fuel on board. It might have cargo on board. It’s dangerous if this thing gets out of control, crashes somewhere, or maybe even gets taken over by some hacker.
How does it … what are the safety factors here?
Svilen Rangelov: Yeah, so, we’re a lot like any other airline and the reason why aviation is the safest mode of transportation is because it uses very well-proven systems and guidances to get the job done. So we use a lot of redundancies in everything.
The drones are always within control of humans. So we have an autopilot on board, but we always have human operators who are actually commercially trained pilots that are in charge. We have two pilots at the origin, two pilots at the destination. So instead of one cockpit per vehicle, we have one cockpit per location.
We only fly between existing airfields. So again, these are secure areas and so on. And we have multiple means of communication. So, again, there’s just a multi-layered approach to ensuring the safety and that’s part of how we were able to achieve the license that we got.
John Koetsier: I never really imagined that pilot would be one of those jobs that you could do remotely … of course, we have drones that have been operating for a long time in the U.S. military, so I should have thought of that. But that is interesting.
Is there a one-to-one correlation between pilot and craft? Or can one pilot manage and control five or 10 or three?
Svilen Rangelov: So, even before we started, there’s been academic research out there that demonstrates that you can have one operator safely manage 10 to 15 flights.
Now, in our case, it’s a lot simpler than the military, right? We’re talking about routes that are predefined, prearranged with the regulators, they’re like a scheduled airline, right? So the more deterministic it is, the easier it gets to plan and to operate. We will be as phase two looking into on-demand applications but, again, they will be on those preset routes.
Then, yeah, it’s just going to be a situation where you’re going to have two pilots initially at origin, taking care of one flight for the first 15 minutes doing the taxiing, the takeoff, and the initial pre-programming of the autopilot, and then two pilots at the destination group taking charge of the landing, taxiing, and takeoff. Technology can do a lot of that itself, but we always want to have humans in the loop, humans in control.
And then we have also a third group of pilots who are in the network op center who sit in this centralized location for the whole country, for the whole continent that they have overview of where every flight is going and they can intervene if there’s an issue.
So, in fact, we start with a lot more than one per flight, but as we scale, it gets to be reversed.
John Koetsier: Interesting. I can’t wait for this brave new future where we’ve got an autonomous drone carrying stuff all over the country, all over the continent. It gets down, probably a robot will unload it and these mini drones will take all the packages and distribute them.
You’ve raised $40 million. One of your investors is the EU itself. You have a license now. What are the next steps?
Svilen Rangelov: Yeah, so we’re finishing the flight testing program towards the end of the year and then after that, we’ll be able to start commercial operations.
It’s quite exciting because we’ll be able to start a couple years earlier than others. And then we’ll start flights in Greece first and then expand through the rest of the Mediterranean as well as the UAE, Australia, and other markets.
John Koetsier: I can see Greece being quite interesting. A lot of islands, so challenges for delivery.
Svilen Rangelov: Exactly. Yeah. We’re starting with low-risk routes. So, flights over water predominantly and then we really, everything we do is in a crawl/walk/run approach. So, as we gain the experience, we’ll be able to expand more routes, more flights, more territory and so on.
John Koetsier: Very cool. Talk about future aircraft that you are thinking of. You mentioned alternative fuels. I think you’re looking at an entirely EV or electric solution as well?
Svilen Rangelov: Well, the challenge we’ve always had with pure electric was not the propulsion, but the batteries. Motors can be a lot simpler, lighter, easier to maintain, and longer lasting than combustion, but batteries, current battery technology is still 40 times worse energy density than fossil fuels.
And then there’s also the supply chain, right? This type of aircraft and this type of solution will make the most difference in the most challenging markets where electricity is not a given everywhere. In a lot of places you end up charging batteries by pouring fossil fuels into a generator. So, we need to be honest about that.
I think that’s why we designed the aircraft to be very modular. So, when it comes to synthetics, there’s no modifications we need to do. We’re partnering with companies on provision of SAF. So it’s just a matter of, do they have the supply at the locations where we’ll be operating? And then when it comes to, for example, hydrogen, you can talk either about gaseous which will have minor modification, or fuel cells where you have a little bigger modification, but the airframe doesn’t need the nose section, it can take many different kind of engines and motors, and then we’ve left enough space in the aircraft to make those modifications in a painless way. So we’ve tried to make it as versatile as possible.
John Koetsier: Very cool. You probably have your hands full on the continent of Europe, but any eyes towards North America?
Svilen Rangelov: Yeah, so we’re quite excited. We think there’s a real path to doing some initial trials in the U.S. around this time next year and then eventually roll out in the U.S. in 2025.
Of course, we’re working closely with regulators in a number of countries. Again, this is not the solution for, I don’t know, Frankfurt to Heathrow, right, or O’Hare to JFK. This is rather to connect bigger centers of commerce to tier two, tier three cities and towns, or just connecting those tier two, tier three directly instead of wasting time and fuel to go through some bigger hubs.
So there’s quite a lot of markets and the U.S., Canada, very big and very diverse geographies with a lot of applications. So we’re definitely looking forward to coming there as well.
John Koetsier: Super cool. I can see a lot of application. There’s a lot of territory over here. And it makes sense as well in many nations in Europe as well. We talked about Greece and the islands and challenges there, Italy, all the population going to the cities. Now you can go out and disperse to those towns where you can get an ancient villa for one euro or something like that and get all your goods and services locally.
Svilen Rangelov: Exactly. Yeah. So COVID made it acceptable to be working and moving bits remotely, but when it comes to atoms, that’s still to be solved and we hope to be part of that solution.
So yeah, I think if you look at population projections, before the end of the century, we’ll have cities that have a hundred million people. I don’t know many people that enjoy living in ten-million-people cities, right? The first thing people when they advanced their career and so on, and any chance they get, they actually move out of the city to live in the countryside, right? And you saw that during the pandemic as well. So, yeah, this trend of urbanization has been going on for 70 years. A lot of that has to do with the lack of infrastructure in so many other places. So, if we can contribute to that infrastructure we can help alleviate some of that pain.
John Koetsier: Excellent. Thank you so much for your time.
Svilen Rangelov: Thank you. Thank you so much.
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