Joshua Riedy doesn’t consider himself a drone guy – and yet it is his work with unmanned aerial systems that has caught the attention of the world’s software giant.

Riedy is building a reusable platform for sensor data, particularly aerial imagery, so that unmanned systems can be operated remotely. He said this will particularly benefit industrial fields such as the wind and oil sectors.

But the Grand Forks entrepreneur knows any success he achieves as a businessman and innovator is in large part due to other people and organizations. That’s not taking any credit away from Riedy. He’s the driving force behind the company he and two business partners – Traviss Desell and Jim Higgins – initially started in early 2018, which a year later created Airtonomy; but he knows his place in the larger scheme of things.

“I have debts of gratitude all the way up to the president of Microsoft,” he said in an interview with the Herald on Tuesday, Feb. 11.

He was referring to TechSpark, the philanthropic arm of Microsoft Corp. Through a $100,000 grant from TechSpark given in 2019 to the UND Aerospace Foundation, which in turn invested in Airtonomy, Riedy is developing a concept using Microsoft tools – including its autonomous systems platform and cloud services. He hopes it will revolutionize drone use and change UAS policy, which currently requires that drones must be controlled and monitored by humans.

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Riedy and his team continue to field test the concepts, but he said with Microsoft and community support, the future of commercializing the product is “fast approaching.”

Among other things, the TechSpark grant – Grand Forks being one of the initial communities selected by Microsoft – fueled additional donations that so far have raised more than $3 million for the startup.

“It’s amazing how impactful they have been, how helpful,” he said of Microsoft.

TechSpark

Microsoft is doing the same thing for other technology companies across the country, impacting and helping them get off the ground through its TechSpark grants.

But as TechSpark Manager Taya Spelhaug told the Herald in an interview on Feb. 26, its mission is not just to help startups. She was hired a little more than two years ago to lead the charge in North Dakota, where Microsoft has an office.

“It really started with our president, Brad Smith,” she said. “He saw the need for assistance in rural America around broadband connectivity, around computer science, education, digital transformation, workforce development, those types of things. And really, Microsoft was already doing something in each of those areas, and so what he did is package them together and called it TechSpark.”

Investments from TechSpark aim to economically impact communities through job creation and grow the technology field, Spelhaug said. She was echoing what Smith wrote in a post on the company’s website in 2018.

The TechSpark initiative focuses on five program areas: digital transformation, digital skills and computer science education, career pathways, rural broadband, and support for nonprofits.

Smith said TechSpark focuses on a “signature project” in each region in which to invest “that we hope will help accelerate a community’s transformation.”

In 2017 Microsoft selected six states on which to focus the technology grants, North Dakota being one of them. Other states initially selected were Texas, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming, but Spelhaug said TechSpark has broadened since then, branching into larger cities. So far it has reached eight locations in the U.S. and one in Juarez, Mexico.

“North Dakota was chosen because it is extremely rural,” Spelhaug said, but noting that having a Microsoft presence in Fargo – one of the company’s larger offices – was also a bonus. “Because we have this Microsoft site, our community is really primed for technology advancement and really ripe for the TechSpark program,” she said.

Also, she said Gov. Doug Burgum’s initiatives about North Dakota, among them having a skilled workforce, aligned well with TechSpark’s mission. “So that was one of the main reasons why North Dakota was chosen, because of its propensity to have a TechSpark program be successful.”

TechSpark’s signature project in the state is called Grand Farm in Fargo, but the company said Grand Forks-based Airtonomy was chosen to “boost North Dakota’s ambitions to be the epicenter of U.S. drone innovation and entrepreneurism.”

It was the first TechSpark grant given in North Dakota.

Partners

When TechSpark launched, it requested that innovative nonprofit groups, or universities working with nonprofits, submit applications to see who might be a good fit for a grant.

The UND Aerospace Foundation applied, mentioning a small startup it was working with called Airtonomy, which was seeking to develop new technology for the unmanned aerial systems (UAS) industry. Spelhaug said her team met with Riedy and UND Aerospace Foundation members, and they rose to the top of the list.

Having a company like Microsoft stand up and take notice is a big deal, said Chuck Pineo, CEO of the UND Aerospace Foundation and one of five board members of Airtonomy. To have it on your side, saying it will help you get off the ground, is even bigger.

“Microsoft is a well-respected company,” he said. “If it’s doing a review of your concepts, that's validation for you and others that what you've got is something viable.”

But Pineo said it wasn’t only the grant and license to use its software that was a boon, but the additional money it unlocked from other sources.

“If you can show Microsoft that your technology is something viable, something worth them investing in, then others would probably think that as well,” he said. “So this validates the technology to some degree and provides the seed funding to get going on the project.”

Pineo said the Aerospace Foundation was interested in becoming an investor with the startup for at least three reasons: “It had University of North Dakota ties to the technology, and so that interested us,” he said. “It’s local. It had UND people, artificial intelligence that was cutting edge that’s not currently on the market, and it involved unmanned aviation. We’re aerospace, so it was really something that we thought was a nice fit.”

Airtonomy has received funding from a number of private and public sources, including the North Dakota Department of Commerce, which provided grants, the city of Grand Forks through Grand Forks Jobs Development Authority, and Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. Recently, an additional $1 million loan was given by the Innovation Technology Loan Fund (LIFT) Committee.

The region’s assets were crucial to Microsoft’s decision to invest in the local startup. According to Grand Forks City Administrator Todd Feland, the city was looking at ways to leverage its own Growth Fund and one way to do that was contributing to the technology sector. The result: $50,000 to Evolve Analytics, Riedy’s initial company that owns Airtonomy, approved through Grand Forks Jobs Development Authority, an amount the community’s Region Economic Development Corp. (EDC) matched with its own contribution.

Investing in a more tried-and-true industry, such as a manufacturing company that has gone through due diligence with a bank, may be a safer route to take, Feland said; but investing in technology is another approach that is important to the city’s long-term goal of creating a more dynamic workforce.

That’s not lessening manufacturing or other businesses in the area, explained EDC Business Development Manager Brandon Baumbach, but it helps balance the community’s portfolio.

He said he’d like to see another partnership with TechSpark in the future.

“There are other tech companies in Grand Forks that want to do new things,” he said. “The EDC and the city’s mission is not just to grow companies but to diversity them. … Being connected to Microsoft is a big deal.”

Baumbach said Grand Forks is prime real estate for technology startups, especially with the UND campus, which is an innovative hotbed for talent and new ideas.

“There’s so much capacity to get things done,” he said. “The opportunity is here.”

As more tech companies get off the ground in Grand Forks, Feland added that he’d like to see them move into the Herald building to help them grow. Although the Herald staff remains in the building as renters, the city purchased the building in 2019 with plans to put it to greater public use in the near future.

“The Grand Forks Herald building is being designed as an innovation/accelerator center that provides an innovation ecosystem” with a number of community partners, he said. “The intent is to incubate technology startup companies in the space ... and grow technology companies to other larger commercial mixed-use space in downtown Grand Forks.”

He added: “Think of all the energy in our downtown area with the Herald building, which houses a legacy newspaper, and new companies moving in,” Feland said. “We’re trying to fill the building with great companies. It’s an exciting time because we believe we can make it successful.”

He said downtown could be the epicenter of the community’s new-tech industry.

Feland said the grant from Microsoft has sparked more than just the ambitions of a startup. It sparked a deeper vision for what can be done in a community with many players working on a “very collaborative” venture.

It also sparked ideas of “how the city can help grow the technology economic sector and companies,” he said, and how its “Jobs Development Authority and the Growth Fund could invest in partnered and leveraged technology investments as part of the Growth Fund portfolio.”

Impact

Wind sweeps across the northern plains, powering hundreds of wind turbines that dot the prairieland, which in turn converts the kinetic energy produced by wind into mechanical power. At the end of that spectrum, through a series of conversions, mechanical power is turned into electricity.

But each wind turbine has to be inspected regularly. That means someone has to climb 300 feet to the top, a dangerous job for even the most savvy wind technician.

If Riedy’s venture is successful – and if federal aviation policies are changed – drones will eliminate the need for a person to climb a wind turbine. It’s just one impact in a potential array of many.

Another: Instead of someone driving hundreds of miles to inspect oil wells, drones operated by artificial intelligence would be able to do that, too. Also, one pilot would be able to fly multiple drones at once.

According to current federal aviation standards, humans are required to operate one drone at a time. Someone has to monitor and land the unmanned craft – all through applications on the ground. But Riedy sees the day when artificial intelligence will operate drones, including flying and landing them. The only thing a person would have to do is push a button or two. These high-flying drones would travel hundreds, perhaps even thousands of miles to monitor and gather data from industrial fields, then transmit the information to a main server or cloud service, where the data would then be accessed by people.

Grand Forks Mayor Michael Brown highlighted the technology in his State of the City address on Feb. 21, saying he was able to observe a wind turbine inspection some 200 miles away near Kulm, N.D.

“The best part?” he said. “I didn’t have to leave my downtown Grand Forks office.”

It might seem at first glance that TechSpark’s investment in Airtonony, which has few employees and whose work would not add much to the workforce; but Spelhaug said Microsoft doesn’t view it like that at all.

“I wouldn't say we're taking out the human equation,” she said. “A.I. and autonomous programs aren't going to go away, they're only going to get more widely spread around in different industries. Will there be job loss? Yes, of course. However, there are going to be so many more jobs that are created, so many more high-paying and safer jobs that are going to be created because of the technology that we're using.

“And really, when we're investing in a program and a company like Airtonomy, yes, it's small right now, but its potential to grow and create jobs is very realistic.”

Baumbach said the EDC believes much the same thing. “It’s not always going to be small,” he said. “It’s going to grow.”

As will the drone industry. According to a 2018 report by Forbes, the $1 billion industry could grow to between $31 billion and $46 billion by 2026. Riedy wants to take advantage of that future, not only for himself but other companies – starting with those in Grand Forks.

Matt Dunlevy, owner of Grand Forks-based SkySkopes, which completes line inspections using drones for the oil and gas industry, among others, said he looks forward to the additional opportunities it will bring to his own team of pilots in the Red River Valley and beyond.

“It’s another market for us to break into,” he said. “Our pilots will just have that many more missions,” referring to the applications that would allow one pilot to fly multiple drones at once. “In that instance you're not just a pilot but an air traffic controller. It’d almost be like conducting a symphony.”

He continued: “I see green technology inspecting green technology. I see big investors, other energy companies benefitting from this.”

The notion that Grand Forks “can be ground zero for the next technological wave is right in front of us,” Mayor Brown said. “It is not a question of if it can happen, because it already is.”

Andrew Weeks may be reached at aweeks@prairiebusinessmagazine.com or 701-780-1276 | @PB_AndrewWeeks.