Microsoft invests in UND to accelerate US drone industry innovation

Microsoft invests in UND to accelerate US drone industry innovation
Funding is part of TechSpark initiative to boost economic opportunities in North Dakota

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Microsoft has invested US$100,000 in the University of North Dakota (UND) Aerospace Foundation to both accelerate innovation in the US drone industry and boost economic opportunities in North Dakota. 

Microsoft’s role in the project comes as part of its TechSpark initiative which selected North Dakota to be one of six TechSpark regions in 2017. TechSpark is the firm’s programme to create economic opportunities and job creation in smaller communities through local partnerships. 

UND Aerospace Foundation will use the funding to partner with drone start-up Airtonomy and develop a proof of concept using Microsoft Azure IoT Edge and artificial intelligence. 

“TechSpark saw the drone innovation in North Dakota’s Red River Valley that is driving exciting advances for the US 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.”

If successful, the project by UND Aerospace Foundation and start-up Airtonomy could be a breakthrough in autonomous unmanned aircraft system (UAS) operations with benefits in agriculture, energy and public safety.

“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 Chuck Pineo, CEO of the UND Aerospace Foundation. “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.”

Encouraged by the TechSpark programme, local investors have also provided almost US$570,000 in additional funding for Airtonomy.  

“Microsoft’s TechSpark support represents a significant opportunity for a start-up 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.”

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