CHICAGO (chicagobusiness.com) — Naira Hovakimyan didn’t know anything about flight before she was hired to work on a new autopilot system as a young researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the late 1990s.

These days, the University of Illinois math professor is all about drones. She’s co-founder of IntelinAir, a startup that uses images gathered by drones, piloted aircraft and satellites to help farmers get bigger yields from their cropland. She’s also exploring ways to use tiny drones to help the elderly, bolstered by a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and she’s assessing the impact of Amazon’s plan to deploy drones for delivery in New York.

“She is really pushing the envelope when it comes to both robotics and flight control,” says Alex Meyer, an Illinois engineering alum who invested in her company. “It’s transforming our understanding of what’s possible with flight.”

IntelinAir’s chief scientist, Hovakimyan, 50, is a computational whiz who grew up in Soviet Armenia. Her mother was a professor, and her father was a military officer. She got a doctorate in math in Moscow in 1992 when she was just 25.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, Hovakimyan moved to Western Europe and then Atlanta to work at Georgia Tech on the math related to adaptive control systems for use in airplanes. The goal was to make the software more responsive to rapidly changing conditions inside and outside the cockpit.

In 2003, she joined the faculty of Virginia Tech and continued her research on control systems. The technology was successfully tested on jets and commercialized for boat autopilot systems and for use in hydraulic pumps. Hovakimyan moved to Urbana-Champaign in 2008 and now runs two university labs and several projects on aerial robotics. “It’s all math at some point,” she says.

Two years ago, she launched IntelinAir with Al Eisaian, a serial entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, who was born in Iran. The company has a couple dozen employees in Champaign and San Jose, Calif., and has raised $3.5 million from investors.

IntelinAir’s algorithms look for anomalies and monitor day-to-day changes in a particular field, helping farmers fine-tune their use of fertilizer and pesticides, or decide whether to replant. Eisaian says IntelinAir can improve yields 10 to 20 percent. “We’re helping farmers supercharge what they do,” he says. “It’s an MRI for the farm.”

The company tested its software with a dozen farms this year, mostly in Illinois, and recently integrated the program with Deere’s precision-agriculture software platform, which gathers data from sensors on farm equipment.

Meanwhile, Hovakimyan is developing palm-sized drones to fetch items such as pills that could help the elderly stay in their homes longer. “I’m always concerned about safety of people,” she says. “The population over 65 is going to double. There aren’t enough nursing homes. (IntelinAir is) about saving the planet. With today’s technology, you can’t feed 9 billion people.”

The answers, no doubt, will be found in the numbers.

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