A Grand Forks startup could soon begin using autonomous unmanned aircraft systems to help the energy and agriculture industries.

The UND Aerospace Foundation and Grand Forks-based Evolve Analytics have been awarded a grant from Microsoft. The startup and foundation partners will receive $100,000 from Microsoft's TechSpark program.

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The Grand Forks' Jobs Development Authority also gave $50,000 for the project, and the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. gave $50,000.

Evolve's first product offering as a result of this grant is Airtonomy, said founder Josh Riedy.

The project uses Microsoft Azure technology, an "internet of things" framework.

"Internet of things" refers to interconnection via the internet of computing devices in everyday objects, like the Amazon Alexa. The project will also use artificial intelligence.

Airtonomy will perform autonomous aerial imaging using those tools. The project could make data like this commercially available, Riedy said, by reusing images captured from one drone flight for multiple different uses, which could drive down the cost of obtaining that data.

TechSpark is the philanthropic arm of Microsoft, said Taya Spelhaug, TechSpark manager for North Dakota.

TechSpark put on a competition for the grant, the Regional Aerial Imagery Grant Competition, and the UND Aerospace Foundation entered and won.

Spelhaug said the program started about two years ago with the goal of "driving economic development in small and rural America." TechSpark is engaged in North Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

"Because of impacts drones are making in the community, drones, ag and energy are going to take off in the next couple of years," Spelhaug said. "We wanted to be a catalyst for investment in those areas."

Microsoft's corporate office also contributed $50,000 to the project, Spelhaug said.

Getting a "stamp of approval" from Microsoft gave Riedy and UND Aerospace Foundation CEO Chuck Pieno the ability to seek other investors.

"Josh and the group sought other funding and were able to say this was a viable product," Spelhaug said. "Microsoft's investment on this level spoke to its validity."

Microsoft said the group received almost $570,000 in additional funding from other local investors.