When you hear the words “black swan,” you probably think of the award-winning Natalie Portman movie. But the phrase originated centuries ago as a metaphor for events thought to be impossible, or “black swan events.”
As it turns out, however, black swans actually exist, which gives the symbol new meaning: the pursuit of feats that are rare but not impossible.
That’s exactly the mindset of brothers Konstantin and Svilen Rangelov, the co-founders of Bulgaria-based drone cargo airline Dronamics. Last week, the firm completed the successful first flight of its flagship Black Swan aircraft near Bulgaria’s Balchik Airport (LBWB), flown remotely by two commercial airline pilots.
Now, the bearded brothers, who vowed to stop shaving until Black Swan’s first flight, have finally shed the biggest concerns they had about their technology—and their beards.
“Since the day we first imagined what the Black Swan aircraft could look like, we’ve worked towards this flight,” said Konstantin Rangelov, Dronamics CTO. “Today we’ve made history and are proud to have demonstrated the validity of our drone technology.”
The flight, spanning 16 miles and lasting a little more than 10 minutes, won’t be enough to enable a full launch for Dronamics, which is targeting commercial flights in Europe later this year. But with the firm moving steadily through European Union certification of Black Swan, the test served as a partial validation of its technology, which could swing the pendulum in its favor.
“It’s taken an enormous amount of hard work, belief, and drive to prove that what we envisioned works,” said Svilen Rangelov, the firm’s CEO. “We can now focus on the next step, the rollout of our commercial operations, and we couldn’t be more excited.”
While existing cargo airlines regularly carry several tons of payload, that’s not what Dronamics is about. Nor is it attempting to enter the crowded last-mile delivery space, which has been the focus for most drone startups. Rather, Black Swan is designed to stand in for delivery vans.
The aircraft’s maximum payload of 770 pounds places it in line with middle-mile ground transportation. And with a range of more than 1,500 miles, it’ll be able to cover the distance between Chicago and Los Angeles or any two points in mainland Europe. The drone also has a capacity of 125 cubic feet, similar to that of a minivan.
With Black Swan, Dronamics is promising to halve overall costs, reduce delivery times by up to 80 percent, and remove up to 60 percent of emissions compared to other modes of transport, including air freight. Flying within the firm’s network of Droneports, it will initially complete time-sensitive deliveries in industries such as e-commerce, health care, perishables, engineering, and mining.
The company is able to bring down the cost of those trips in part by removing pilots from the aircraft, allowing it to offer deliveries for less than $2.50 per pound—up to 50 percent less than existing same-day air cargo services. However, Black Swan can be flown fully or semi-autonomously.
With last week’s maiden voyage in the books, Dronamics appears to be well positioned for its planned commercial launch later this year: At last year’s European Business Aviation Convention and Expo trade show in Switzerland, the firm announced it had received an EU light UAS operator certificate, the first for a drone cargo airline.
Awarded by Transport Malta Civil Aviation Directorate (TM – CAD), the license allows Dronamics to self-authorize flights across EU member states—including beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, which are some of the most regulated in unmanned aviation. Malta is slated as the firm’s base for European operations and, along with Italy, the site of its first commercial flights.
Now, Dronamics is preparing to scale up Black Swan. When that time comes, the firm will leverage the mass production partnerships it signed last year with Cotesa Holdings in Europe and Quickstep in Australia, as well as the $40 million it raised in pre-Series A funding this past February. Laying the groundwork for a potential Series A round later this year, the raise included participation by investors and venture capital funds from 12 countries.
The company also has a few more partnerships with an eye toward the future. Its agreements with Zero Petroleum and Cranfield Aerospace will support fossil-free alternatives to power Black Swan’s engine, which does not rely on electric or hybrid-electric power like the aircraft of rivals Elroy Air, Drone Delivery Canada, or Destinus.
And through its participation in the Care & Equity – Healthcare Logistics UAS Scotland (CAELUS) program, a consortium led by AGS Airports to develop the U.K.’s first nationwide medical drone distribution network, Dronamics will complete more Black Swan flight trials by 2024. Eventually, CAELUS hopes to enable deliveries of blood, organs, essential medicines, and more, which could make it a valuable partner moving forward.