UND, Airtonomy receive state’s first Microsoft AI for Earth Grant

Airtonomy partners with UND biologist to use drones for bird, bat mortality surveys

UND is working in partnership with Airtonomy, a Grand Forks, N.D., UAS technology startup company, on using drones to conduct bird and bat mortality surveys at wind energy sites. Microsoft AI for Earth and Research ND recently awarded grants to the project. Photo courtesy Airtonomy.

In partnership with UND, Grand Forks, N.D., startup company Airtonomy has been awarded North Dakota’s first Microsoft AI for Earth grant and a Research ND grant to develop monitoring protocols of bird and bat mortalities at wind energy sites through the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

Susan Ellis-Felege, an associate professor in the UND Department of Biology specializing in the application of new technology in wildlife ecology, is working with Airtonomy and Xcel Energy to develop the artificial intelligence (AI)-powered routines enabling automated bird and bat mortality surveys to meet industry compliance standards on wind farms.

“Current environmental survey costs are significant,” said Ellis-Felege. “Assessments require a person to walk hundreds of miles a month at a wind farm to locate, identify and collect carcasses to record mortalities and remove them to minimize vulnerability of scavengers such as eagles.”

Using UAS technology

The use of UAS technology to help conduct the surveys not only saves time and cost, but could also lead to improved pre-construction assessments of wind energy sites and better monitoring after construction is completed, Ellis-Felege explained.

Airtonomy has also engaged in collaborations with UND students, some of whom have worked for the company following graduation.

Susan Ellis-Felege, right, associate professor in the UND Department of Biology specializing in the application of new technology in wildlife ecology, visits with an Xcel Energy representative last summer during an event at the utility’s new Foxtail Wind Farm near Kulm, N.D. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

In addition to wildlife assessment, the grants provide Airtonomy with new resources to accelerate development of its fully autonomous solution for critical asset inspection of wind turbines, which the company said will soon expand to inspections of electrical transmission and distribution lines, as well as energy pipelines.

“The Airtonomy solution offers tremendous cost savings for customers with minimal training involved,” said Josh Riedy, Airtonomy founder and CEO. “As the world depends more heavily on wind and other sources of renewable energy, we’re prepared to improve operational efficiency and safety conditions for our customers, while simultaneously lessening the impact on wildlife mortality.”

Airtonomy sponsored the project by contributing $175,000. The state of North Dakota contributed $119,826 through the Research ND grant. Microsoft AI for Earth provided a $15,000 credit.

Last summer, Airtonomy began demonstrating its UAS technology at Xcel’s new $200 million Foxtail Wind Farm near Kulm, N.D. Drones were used to perform wind turbine inspection, wildlife assessment and perimeter check missions autonomously, using AI and machine learning to become more proficient at the tasks every time they fly.

During 2019, the project received a $100,000 grant from the Microsoft TechSpark program and investments from the UND Aerospace Foundation and others. Organizations involved include the UND Research Institute for Autonomous Systems (RIAS), the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, the North Dakota Department of Commerce, the North Dakota Renewable Energy Council, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corp. and the city of Grand Forks.

Advancing UAS integration

The project builds upon a previous Research ND effort that produced a recently awarded Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) autonomous multi-drone inspection (AMDI) operational waiver, submitted under Xcel Energy’s UAS Integration Pilot Program designation.

Airtonomy and UND are partners in a program to develop monitoring protocols of bird and bat mortality at wind energy sites. Using UAS to conduct surveys is expected to save time and costs. Photo by Patrick C. Miller/UND Today.

The goal of Research ND is to have a long-term, positive impact on the state and private sector, including economic diversification, improved production factors and the development of new markets.

AI for Earth is part of Microsoft’s recent commitment to become carbon negative by 2030. Riedy said Airtonomy is well-positioned to emerge as a leader in renewable energy innovation, playing a key part in helping power companies increase overall output and reduce the cost of maintenance over time, while keeping employees safe on the front lines.

AI for Earth is a $50 million, 5-year program that brings Microsoft technology to those working to solve global environmental challenges in the key focus areas of climate, agriculture, water and biodiversity. The grants provide access to Microsoft’s cloud and AI tools, opportunities for education and training on AI, and investments in innovative, scalable solutions.