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

Microsoft 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.

Source : Microsoft

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