Drone in flight.

GENIUS NY accelerator fuels liftoff for UAS companies

It might seem unusual for a California drone startup initially targeting West Coast vineyards to find fertile entrepreneurial ground across the country in Central New York – but then there’s nothing typical about GENIUS NY, the yearlong business accelerator with a million-dollar grand prize that is cultivating a regional ecosystem devoted to unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

For the California-based founders of AutoModality, grand prize winners in last year’s inaugural GENIUS NY competition, the experience sent the company in a different direction - to Syracuse, where they and other GENIUS NY alums are staying to build their businesses.

Based at CenterState CEO’s Tech Garden accelerator in Syracuse, GENIUS NY describes itself as one of the world’s largest drone-focused business competitions, offering a total of $2.75 million to six finalists who live and work in the region’s UAS corridor. This year’s Round Two winners will be announced on April 9 in a ceremony at the Marriott Downtown Syracuse.

“When we started this program, we really didn’t expect a company from Northern California to come to Central New York and be excited about building a business in Syracuse,” said GENIUS NY director Jon Parry, interviewed on Ian Smith’s “Commercial Drones FM” podcast last summer. “But what we found was, due to the nature of the investments [pledged to the winners] we got much more experienced teams than we were originally expecting.”

The other finalists from the inaugural competition include Ascent AeroSystems (second place), OmniMesh (third place), Akrobotix (runner-up), EZ3D (runner-up) and SkyOp (runner-up), a drone pilot training company offering classes to high school STEM and community college students. OmniMesh, Akrobotix and SkyOp all originated in New York State.

GENIUS NY Finalists

Prior to entering the GENIUS NY competition, AutoModality’s founders had launched  robotics businesses and a skydiving company, but they wanted to explore the possibilities of using drones in agriculture and infrastructure inspection. Since winning GENIUS NY, the company has successfully launched its Perceptive Navigation software, which turns small drones into highly precise automated inspection agents. Union Pacific (UP) is already using them to inspect and maintain the railroad’s 18,000 bridges across the country. The setup allows UP engineers to monitor up to 30 live drone feeds at a time.

AutoModality’s precise, close-up inspections aren’t only for bridges: cell tower and vineyard owners are among those also interested in the automated technology. Inside warehouses, the company’s Automated Drone Warehouse Inspection Solution (ADWIS) takes stock of inventory 50 percent faster than manual inspection and avoids putting humans in harm’s way.

The annual competition is just one of the many reasons that upstate New York’s burgeoning “drone corridor” is gaining attention. According to a recent report by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, New York is among 10 states that will benefit most from the new worldwide drone economy due to the state’s  existing aerospace infrastructure.

New York State is home to Griffiss International Airport in Rome, a former Air Force base that features one of seven FAA-approved unmanned aircraft test sites in the country. Corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Saab and Gryphon Sensors already have roots here, and in late March, multinational aerospace manufacturer Thales Group announced it would expand drone development at the former Air Force base in a partnership with NASA.

GENIUS NY Winner AutoModality

New York is committed to developing this emerging ecosystem and Upstate Revitalization Initiative funds are helping to develop and grow the UAS industry.

Most of the 2017 GENIUS NY finalists have decided to establish a division or headquarters in Central New York following their program residency. In AutoModality’s case, the company’s initial product rollout attracted additional funding from the National Science Foundation and the SkyFund venture capital fund.   

Last year‘s third-place winner OmniMesh has already introduced its technology to several of the 2018 finalists and 2017 runner-up Akrobotix is collaborating with 2018 finalist Precision Vision. In fact, all of last year’s winners are either selling product, increasing partnerships or attracting additional funding because of their yearlong immersion. The region’s wider research network and business community, combined with the GENIUS NY Accelerator, places Central New York on the map as a world leader in UAS.