Ukrainian drone startup Buntar Aerospace raises $1M. Interview with the team

In the summer of 2023, Ivan Kaunov, co-founder of Finmap and ex-founder of Pix Backpack, created a new defense tech company. He was inspired by Star Wars and named it Buntar Aerospace (Бунтар means Rebell in Ukrainian). He and other co-founders, Kateryna Bezsudna and Bohdan Sas, gathered a team now working on three projects.

So, the team has been developing a long-range surveillance UAV (up to 80 km from the operation station) called Buntar 1, special mission-planning automation software, and an AI-driven navigation system working without GPS, for example, under the influence of enemy rear electronic warfare means.

They plan to raise funds for three other drones and get them tested and certified by the state certification body to prove their effectiveness on the battlefield in the coming summer.

AIN.Capital talked with the Buntar team about its project perspectives, private and state investments, and how to keep Ukrainian innovations hidden from the enemy.

Co-founders of Buntar Aerospace. From left to right: Bohdan Sas, Kateryna Bezsudna, Ivan Kaunov. All photos in the interview were provided by the company representatives

Tell us about the project’s origin—from the very idea to the team expansion and project implementation.

Ivan: I joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine in April 2022 as an infantry private and got a concussion in the Popasna area. After the rehabilitation period, I have been dispatched to a unit I am not allowed to name.

Through our familiar friends, I met Kateryna, who worked at Brave1 then and helped them test several drones. We analyzed defense tech in Ukraine and decided to do a workshop dedicated to a well-known problem to be solved in the form of a high-quality product of an international startup.

We wanted to speed up the creation of new high-tech products and not just combine some Chinese plastics with some Chinese engines. I spoke to my military superiors and explained what we could do, and they supported my idea. During a team call, I officially announced: “Now we are going to make an aircraft.” So, it is how it started in August 2023.

Bohdan: I have known Ivan since we were in a startup accelerator in 2017—Roman Kravchenko’s IoT Hub. Last year, we met again. I also met Katya there. So, we three started working on this project. At Buntar, I am responsible for the quality of the product according to military officers’ expectations and needs.

Kateryna: Before the full-scale invasion, I volunteered and worked a lot in strategy and sales departments. I wanted to be useful for my country and not to feel ashamed in the future. At Brave1, I shared many prototypes to be tested at the frontline with Ivan. One day, during a call, we decided that we could implement a really cool project. Buntar was born on that day.

Today, I am responsible for operations, international cooperation, and GR, and I do my best to attract as many soldiers as possible using Buntar and our software.

The Buntar project is already six months old. Can you tell us about its development through time? What results have you achieved so far?

Ivan: We closed an investment round and raised over a million dollars from investors who wish to stay anonymous. Now, we are ready to slightly extend this round to close it with an overcommitment and expand.

We have 25 super professionals and our own production. We have three R&D teams: The first one develops the aircraft, the second one creates software for mission planning and execution, and the third one deals with navigation without GPS, using multiple channels simultaneously. A fun thing to mention is that all three product team leads are called Taras.

Our invention—the Buntar1 UAV—uses a multi-rotary system to take off. After that, the drone switches to the aircraft flight mode. This helps significantly decrease UAV losses due to operator mistakes. The personnel learning process is quite quick and takes only five days.

Instead of a drone mission planner, we use the Buntar Copilot AI-driven software. It automates many flight mission preparation routines and advises on a mission.

The software can be integrated with other types of aircraft. It is already in use in many units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine for mission planning.

We already ordered the parts required for two new UAVs. Tests will run in April-May. After the test phase is completed, our goal is to get approval from the army and sign our first supply contract to expand the production according to incoming orders. We are already in negotiations with potential customers: In Ukraine, not exclusively the Ministry of Defense can purchase military vehicles but also the Ministry of Digital Transformation via State Special Communication Enterprise [Derzhspetszviazok], and some units with separate budgets allocated for this kind of purchase.

We were invited to international exhibitions. We won’t go yet because first, we must show the ultimate result in combat conditions this summer and build the production.

Kateryna: After our field tests, we want to obtain certificates from the MoD of Ukraine. Officially, it should take about 20 working days, but, in fact, it can last up to two months. These certificates will help us get state orders from military foundations like Come Back Alive or Serhiy Prytula Charity Foundation or directly from military units.

This summer, after testing our aircraft abroad, we plan to go for NATO certification. It’s all taking long and full of bureaucracy. Certification rules existed for many years, and nobody was ready for a full-scale war. Ukraine, like a training ground for different military inventions, helps NATO change. We could solve safety issues at the NATO level since intelligence is one of the key defense aspects that so many nations lack.

Bohdan: We deeply study alternative products to stay up-to-date not only for now and here but also to join the collective safety efforts in the future. There are a lot of aircraft manufacturers. However, most of them just assemble their products from more or less standard parts. This number will only increase because of the growing demand for drones. But there is a question: How should one perform missions most effectively and qualitatively?

How many specialists does your team need to run serial production?

Bohdan: Now, we are hiring to cover five open positions. There is a saying: You are either fighting at the front or helping those at the front. So, it is the best time for civilians who are not fighting yet to support the defense forces with their intelligence and skills.

We need software developers, engineers, QAs, designers, constructors, avionics specialists, etc. There seem to be a lot of opportunities for such people, but not many projects combine military, engineering, and business expertise.

To create a game changer in this war, we need qualified specialists who will professionally build, plan, and develop. People are mostly wanted in production because it is still in the form of manufacturing. The software part is much easier, thanks to its similarity to ordinary IT products: Concept, Testing, and Development. But our customers are not civilians but military guys.

Buntar 1

Ivan, in your previous interview, you said that our military specialists knew on the second day of the full-scale Russian invasion how the Iranian drones were working and how to locate them. How is it possible to keep Ukrainian innovations in secret?

Bohdan: We have both physical and data security officers on our team. We work in secret locations with different access levels. At the same time, we use some tricks to erase traces in case our creation falls somewhere in the enemy territory.

Ivan: It’s normal for technology to be discovered sooner or later. After the Russians shut down our first board, they will investigate all its parts for sure. We just postpone this moment for now. However, it won’t be an issue. Feedback speed is vital. How fast can we implement new features into software or hardware; how will we react to the fact this info is already known to our enemy? The reaction speed and our adaptivity are crucial safety means.

The Ukrainian state motivates citizens to assemble drones from Chinese parts at home. Such “actions” sometimes get criticized. How do you like this initiative?

Ivan: I would be careful here. We don’t criticize because doing something is much better than doing nothing. I think there are more efficient drone production ways. Producing components, controlling quality, testing, and adjusting—all these procedures are complicated. And I think the real high-quality can get to the battlefield only from an organized manufacturing facility.

Kateryna: We should think about international partnerships, appropriate management teams, and, first of all, the actual needs of the front fighters. We should consider what we can change in FPV drones to leave the RF beyond. But I can agree with Ivan—we don’t criticize or comment; we just do our job.

There were a few scandals with donations for military needs in the past year, especially the one with mortars. After that, Ukrainians started to check donation campaigns more carefully. Do you think the fundraising campaigns for military developments were also affected? How exactly will you provide reports, and how detailed will they be?

Kateryna: We do public reports. We are absolutely transparent. There is always a request from a military unit. Then we check all the papers. We don’t feel any problems with donations.

Ivan: We can report on our purchases. Part of it is paid with public funds; another part is covered with private funds. For safety reasons, we cannot provide detailed information about private money.

The main thing here is to hand over the package to the soldiers. For example, if we can’t collect enough donations to build a complete UAV, we inform the donors that we will cover the rest with money from fundraising. Then, we assemble the complete drone system and hand it over to a specific surveillance unit, which will later give feedback on our product, which is really doing its combat missions.

There are also special state bodies that audit the MoD suppliers. We can always confirm what we have purchased and inform that a certain military unit got the product and conducted specific war-related tasks.

Bohdan: We promote investments in Ukrainian arms developers. So, people donate to a developer who creates jobs and the basics of the future weapon industry.

Kateryna: Investing in Ukrainian defense tech decreases the risk of having situations similar to those with stolen mortar donations or DJI Mavic drones. The result of this investment can be seen on the battlefield.

Ivan: We change the donation philosophy. For example, people donate to purchase EOS UAV systems. They are also needed. However, from a long-term perspective, we must build our defense industry to find better and more affordable solutions that will also last. Doing so will strengthen our defense so that no bastard can come to us from the east alive.

What should be the structure of the military-industrial complex, which, in your opinion, Ukraine lacks now? Which roles take businesses, startups, and the government? Which specialists are demanded?

Kateryna: We and the government should build partnerships. For a startup, you must have a team—managers, hardware & software departments, and engineers who will assemble. Then, you ask the military about their needs, deliver it to the frontline, and receive quick feedback from the battlefield.

Your professionals must be allowed to go abroad to show their developments at exhibitions. So, you must clearly distribute roles in your team and write a roadmap, which is often, unfortunately, missing even at the state level.

We also need to have defense builder accelerators—startup support & development programs that provide funds, mentorship, training, and access to resources. Currently, our team is going through the acceleration at Scale Wolf [a venture and a tech acceleration program focused on dual-use technologies that can be applied in both the defense industry and business. The foundation cooperates with Lithuania’s Ministry of Economics and Innovation—edit.]

Many teams need more current assets for spare parts, operational activities, and R&D. With Ivan, we got a great talent who managed to raise an incredible amount of funds for our startup within just six months. In any case, so many people still must be taught fundraising skills.

How can Buntar Aerospace become profitable thanks to national and foreign customers?

Ivan: We can be profitable with our very first contract. We explain to our international partners and investors that supporting defense tech in Ukraine is not only about helping Ukrainians but also an opportunity for NATO members to prepare themselves for potential conflicts to come. If they cooperate with Ukrainian defense tech companies, it will be much faster and more effective.

Profitability is not our main goal. Our primary task is to develop high-quality products, increase the evaluation, and attract more investments in R&D. We have prepared another five projects to present before the next round of investment.

Multiple times, European or Ukrainian investors said they didn’t understand why we had such a high evaluation and asked for a discount since “we are a Ukrainian startup, not international.” However, the US bidders are totally OK with that number. To obtain a technology advantage on the battlefield, we require funds for R&D because you cannot build a tech company for $100K.

What problems with state investments in military projects do you find the most urgent?

Ivan: That there is no investment.

Kateryna: Another problem is not understanding what a startup is, how good it is, and how much funds it requires. There are only a few programs supporting the defense tech. Climate change or dual-use goods are far more popular, for instance.

Bohdan: You can get $25,000 from Brave1. It’s a great initiative, for sure. But if we speak about defense, it’s always costly. The idea that an engineering military solution can be cheap is a utopia because any military application means a harsh environment requiring specific components, approaches, and tests connected with increasing the final price five to ten times compared to an ordinary device for civil use.

How do you attract investments? Who is your favored donor category?

Kateryna: Currently, we collect donations in a “banka” (a special donation-collecting product by monobank—edit.) within our personal networks. We organized a fundraising campaign and asked the Dopovidai team to help start our first fundraising and establish communication with Ukraine-based donors.

Multiple military officers, foreign defense tech networkers, and Ukrainian IT specialists are among the first to send us their generous donations. Soon, we will get $25,000 from Brave1. Unfortunately, that will be all from the state at the moment.

Bohdan: The banka is not a way to fund the project. It is a donation campaign for a UAV set for our army [7.5 million UAH for three drones and a land operation station—edit.] We want to increase the number of active-fighting UAVs this summer. However, the major part of investments is private ones.

Buntar Aerospace

How can Buntar Aerospace be changed after the full-scale war? 

Ivan: Many things in the project can be turned into dual-use products. But now we are making a quality product for intelligence. Not only the defense forces but also the special forces are engaged in intelligence. And there will definitely be more of these forces after the war.

Some people think that the need for military technology will decrease after our victory. But it is exactly the opposite. Even after the win and returning to the 1991 border, we must defend these borders as we do now.

Investors, politicians, and defense ministry officials from different countries are working with us. They once thought they would simply share their technologies with us and everything would go well, but these technologies did not work. For example, they were sure that GPS would work, but there was no GPS in the combat zone, while our AI-based navigation module can work without satellite navigation, which means it is resistant to electronic warfare.

Ukraine is now creating military developments that will be in service for the next 30-50 years. We will make the best products. Will we take on the following tasks? We’ll see, but I’m sure we will. 

In Ukraine, there are private capital owners who dream of bringing our victory closer but do not know how. On the other hand, there are people who know how to make products: engineers, team leads, and managers. We need to unite them, teach them how to invest correctly, and explain the peculiarities of management, finance, and R&D production. 

We want to share our experience with others and build an ecosystem of companies engaged in development in their niches around Buntar Aerospace. We are working on a project to bring these two parties together. We need Ukrainian capitalists to consider investing in Ukrainian defense-tech startups, even with checks of $5,000-$10,000. Because, first of all, it can speed up the victory and bring us back to a better life. And secondly, in business terms, you can make money on it because such products will be sold in the huge market of NATO member states.