Microsoft TechSpark initiative invests in UND to propel US drone industry innovation

Drone in flight over farm field

Project has potential to transform industries such as agriculture, energy and public safety

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — April 23, 2019 — Microsoft Corp. and the University of North Dakota (UND) Aerospace Foundation announced Tuesday that Microsoft has granted $100,000 in project funding that will drive investment and boost North Dakota’s ambitions to be the epicenter of U.S. drone innovation and entrepreneurism. The project is being funded by a Microsoft TechSpark grant to foster economic opportunities in the state and is expected to attract over half a million dollars in additional investment in Airtonomy, the startup the foundation will partner with on the project. If successful, the project could be a breakthrough in autonomous unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations with transformational benefits for industries such as agriculture, energy and public safety.

“TechSpark saw the drone innovation in North Dakota’s Red River Valley that is driving exciting advances for the U.S. drone industry and wanted to be a part of it,” said Kate Behncken, general manager of Global Community Engagement at Microsoft. “This cutting-edge project has the potential to increase crop yields and boost the production of renewable energy through safe drone advancements created locally, leading to greater economic opportunities for North Dakotans.”

Microsoft selected North Dakota to be one of six TechSpark regions in 2017, complementing the work at the Fargo campus. TechSpark is the company’s initiative to spark new economic opportunities and job creation in rural and smaller communities through local partnerships. UND Aerospace Foundation will use the $100,000 cash grant to partner with drone startup Airtonomy to undertake the project, which includes developing a proof of concept leveraging Microsoft Azure IoT Edge and artificial intelligence. Airtonomy will field-test the platform’s capabilities to perform autonomous drone aerial imaging over the next year and its commercial applications.

“UND Aerospace has a long history of providing leadership in aerospace innovation and economic diversification by supporting projects that advance the UAS sector and increase high-tech services in the Grand Forks region,” said UND Aerospace Foundation CEO Chuck Pineo. “We are truly excited to partner with Microsoft on developing a concept that promises to develop into a high-growth technology company in our community.”

North Dakota has emerged as a leading state for U.S. drone technology research and development. The Red River Valley has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley” of drone innovation thanks to UAS policies the state and its leaders have championed, aerospace centers like UND, open spaces, and ideal weather conditions for testing.

“Microsoft’s TechSpark support represents a significant opportunity for a startup like ours that wants to innovate and create jobs here in our community,” said Josh Riedy, CEO of Airtonomy. “It gives confidence to others to back our work, providing the jump-start for us to develop a platform that can drive the next evolution in how drones are used commercially.”

The project also represents a milestone for Airtonomy, as the TechSpark support served to unlock an additional nearly $570,000 in funding for the startup from local investors. It is that kind of multiplier effect that was an aim of Microsoft’s TechSpark investment and collaboration with UND as they seek to drive economic opportunity through the North Dakota UAS industry’s potential for growth. It’s been reported the current $1 billion commercial U.S. drone industry could grow up to an estimated $46 billion by 2026.

About the UND Aerospace Foundation

The UND Aerospace Foundation (UNDAF), a non-profit corporation, was organized to support the activities of the University of North Dakota’s Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences, particularly in the fields of education and research. Together, known as UND Aerospace, they are an international leader in collegiate and contract aviation education and training services flying over 160,000 hours per year in over 150 aircraft. In addition to its home-base in Grand Forks, North Dakota, UNDAF also has facilities Phoenix, Arizona, in conjunction with Chandler-Gilbert Community College and Crookston, Minnesota, with the University of Minnesota. With more than 2,000 students from throughout the world, the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences provides undergraduate and graduate programs leading to a variety of rewarding careers in aerospace. Degree programs are offered through four academic departments: aviation, atmospheric sciences, earth system science and policy, and space studies. The UND Aerospace training complex is the most technologically advanced environment for aerospace education, training and research in the world.

About Airtonomy

Located in the renowned ‘Silidrone Valley’ with headquarters in Grand Forks, ND, Airtonomy delivers solutions that combine drone technology and AI to help customers improve efficiency of core operations and asset management. Airtonomy is focused on helping clients in agriculture, energy, and public safety realize the holistic benefits of aerial imagery made possible through secure, remote, autonomous, multi-drone operations. Airtonomy global and regional industry partners include Microsoft, UND Aerospace Foundation, the University of North Dakota Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS) and Northern Plains UAS Test Site.

About Microsoft

Microsoft (Nasdaq “MSFT” @microsoft) is the leading platform and productivity company for the mobile-first, cloud-first world, and its mission is to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more.

For more information, press only:

Microsoft Media Relations, WE Communications for Microsoft , (425) 638-7777, [email protected]

Paul Staats, WE Communications for Microsoft, (425) 638-7109, [email protected]

Duncan Neasham, Microsoft, (425) 722-9484, [email protected]


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