RIT Professor Co-Founded Company Wins $ 1 Million Grand Prize at GENIUS NY Competition


Travis Desell, professor of data science at the Rochester Institute of Technology, has a drone data management business that’s really taking off.

The company, called Airtonomy, was won the $ 1 million grand prize at the GENIUS NY International Accelerator Competition in October. The company was selected from over 600 applicants during the one-year GENIUS NY program, which is the world’s largest business competition focused on unmanned systems, interconnected platforms and other technology sectors.

Now, Desell and his Airtonomy co-founders are using this investment to grow the business and expand its presence in the region and across the country.

“We’ve spent a lot of time and effort building this idea over the past few years,” said Desell, associate professor in the software engineering department at RIT. “It’s nice to get that recognition and help grow. I’m also excited to hire RIT graduates who want to work in this space.

Airtonomy offers a fully autonomous drone-based solution for inspecting wind turbines and other critical energy infrastructure. Airtonomy then analyzes and aggregates the collected data, so companies can detect failures before they occur.

Typically, power companies should hire a certified drone pilot or have someone climb up to manually inspect wind turbines for lightning damage, cracks, and other issues. Instead, Airtonomy allows existing employees to initiate a fully autonomous flight routine through drone or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), with minimal training and the push of a button. This way, existing personnel including technicians, power liners and others can easily perform inspections and operate the drone safely. During flight, the UAS captures highly detailed images of every part of the wind turbine.

“This saves businesses time and money on maintenance costs,” Desell said. “Instead of hiring professional pilots to do inspections just a few times a year, they can do their own inspections every week. It’s more efficient.

As soon as the UAS lands, imaging data is uploaded to an easy-to-use interface. Through machine learning, possible damage is detected and tagged. Customers can perform inspection and get their data analyzed within 30 minutes.

“One of the biggest issues we’re looking to solve is managing the data pipeline of these large-scale images and making sure the inspection information is really useful for our customers,” Desell said. “Because he’s self-sufficient, we can also get more consistent and reliable images than any human. “

Airtonomy began in 2018 in Grand Forks, North Dakota. At the time, Desell was an associate professor at the University of North Dakota, where he met his Airtonomy co-founders, Joshua Riedy and Jim Higgins. They started working with Xcel Energy, a utility company that serves more than 3.7 million customers in the Midwest.

Airtonomy now has 25 employees and a satellite office in Syracuse, NY. They have inspected over 2,000 wind turbines this year alone and have already secured contracts for 2022.

During the GENIUS NY program, Desell said she worked on a business plan and presentations for their company. GENIUS NY, which is administered by the Tech Garden of the CEO of CenterState in Syracuse, provides attendees with incubator space, corporate resources, programming, and mentorship. Of the five finalists in the program, three were international and one was the client company of RIT Venture Creations Circle optics.

“The energy and innovation that Airtonomy represents is essential to continue building a thriving entrepreneurial economy in central New York City, and we look forward to helping them grow their operations in our region,” said Kara Jones, director of GENIUS NY at CEO of CenterState. “New York State has a wide variety of industries that Airtonomy can tap into, including energy, agriculture and technology. The large population of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) employees in central New York City provides an impressive array of human capital to support their hiring growth as well.

Desell said Airtonomy will expand into New York State and add 20 other different types of inspections, including transmission power lines and distribution power lines. Last year Airtonomy created an inspection for Royal Dutch Shell’s oil tanks in Texas, never having to set foot in Texas.

Since starting RIT three years ago, Desell has worked on the design of the Masters in Data Science program, one of the university’s fastest growing graduate programs.

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