Evandro Valente ’03, M.S. ’06 (right), and Pramod Raheja ’91 (left)

By Allison Eatough ’97

Entrepreneurs are known for finding inspiration in places others may not. And for former UMD Lecturer Evandro Valente ’03, M.S. ’06, that inspiration came in the form of a pancake.

A flying pancake, that is.

In 2006, Valente led a group of UMD aerospace engineering students in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ annual Design, Build, Fly competition, for which students design and build radio-controlled aircrafts to perform specific missions.

For their design, students decided to revitalize a NASA concept from the 1930s known as the Vought V-173 “flying pancake,” a short takeoff and landing aircraft for use on board U.S. Navy ships.

“As I’m flying in this aerial competition, I said to myself, ‘Someday, I’m going to have a company that brings this technology out of the past and that adds vertical takeoff and landing to the aircraft,’” Valente recalled. “It won’t need a runway. It will take off, hover and land like a helicopter but fly forward like an airplane.”

A decade later, Valente and his partner, Pramod Raheja ’91, co-founded Airgility, a startup based in UMD’s Discovery District that designs and manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as drones. The pair is receiving this year’s Alumni Excellence EnTERPreneur Award.

While both Valente and Raheja are Terps, they didn’t meet until Glen Hellman, the former entrepreneur-in-residence and board member at the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship, introduced them.

“Glen knew I was the kind of person who could sell and market things to lead the business,” said Raheja, a United Airlines captain and former telecommunications franchise owner. “He also knew that I had the ability to take technical things and translate them well into an ability to communicate itself.”

Since founding the company, Valente and Raheja have developed three products: the flagship HS-1, designed for communication or delivery missions; the MS-1, designed for first responder or special operations missions; and the DS-1 Minotaur, which can fly itself and is designed for indoor building inspections and security needs. They test their products at UMD’s Fearless Flight Facility, the only university outdoor flight laboratory for testing unmanned aircraft systems in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia region.

“We’re a robotics company at the heart of it all,” Raheja said. “Aerial robots have numerous use cases, and carry real-time artificial intelligence optimized for different autonomous functions. There’s no one size fits all.”

Drones have different use cases, and they’re optimized for different things. There’s no one size fits all.”

Airgility clients include the U.S. government, universities and local police and fire departments.

“Our motto in the company is to improve and save lives,” Raheja said. “It sounds really simple and maybe cliché, but that's really what it is.”

Sammy Popat, manager of the Discovery District, said the thread of innovation runs deep in UMD’s aerospace engineering students and alums, and it's especially strong in Valente and Raheja. 

“The two of them bring together so many complementary skills and knowledge,” Popat said. “Their marriage as entrepreneurs, co-founding this startup, is a wonderful illustration of people who have great ideas working together, and using their skills to do something really impactful.”

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