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Microsoft awards $100K grant to UND for drone industry innovation

GRAND FORKS — Microsoft announced Tuesday, April 23, that it has awarded a $100,000 TechSpark grant to the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation in support of North Dakota's ambitions to be the epicenter of U.S. drone innovation and entrepreneurism.

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.

In a statement, Kate Behncken, general manager of Global Community Engagement at Microsoft, explained why Microsoft wanted to be a part of the advances being made in the drone industry in North Dakota.

“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,” Behncken said. “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.”

The project 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.