The first Ferris wheel. The first commercial radio station and public television station in the U.S. The first nickelodeon in the world.
Pittsburgh’s seen a lot of “firsts.” Now it has another.
On Tuesday evening, guests from around the world gathered at an opening reception for the first-ever Aviation & Robotics Summit, a three-day, invitation-only event in Pittsburgh designed to build industry partnerships between aviation officials and roboticists.
Held at a stunning seventh-floor space in The Vision on Fifteenth near “Robotics Row” in the Strip District neighborhood, about 300 attendees had a 360-degree view of Pittsburgh through floor-to-ceiling windows as they renewed acquaintances and created new ones.
Among them: Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro, who conveyed his support for the Summit and lauded Pittsburgh’s potential to lead the world in tech development.
“We’re making sure the future of robotics innovation in aviation is Pennsylvania-made,” he said. “We need to build on the robotics ecosystem here.”
Over the next two days, global leaders from airlines and airports will tour local tech institutions like Carnegie Mellon University and work with roboticists and engineers based in Pittsburgh to find innovative solutions to some of the industry’s current and future challenges.
At the opening reception, visitors also heard from the leader of Astrobotic, one of the region’s biggest tech success stories. The company will be launching a lunar mission this summer, the first such U.S. venture since the Apollo missions.
“If Pittsburgh can land on the moon, Pittsburgh can do anything,” said CEO John Thornton. “The sky is no longer the limit—quite literally.”
The Summit is a joint effort between Pittsburgh’s Innovation Works, which is leading the project with a portion of $63 million in funding from the federal Build Back Better program awarded to the Southwestern Pennsylvania New Economy Collaborative; the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which partnered with Future Travel Experience to bring the global aviation industry to Pittsburgh; the Pittsburgh Robotics Network; and the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
Matt Smith, chief growth officer for ACCD and a vice chair of the Airport Authority’s board, pointed out the unique nature of the Summit in bringing the public and private sectors together with the support of elected officials at every level.
“This is really a perfect example of what differentiates the Pittsburgh region from a lot of other regions when we’re talking about economic development,” he said. “We are indeed inventing the future of aviation right here in Pittsburgh.”
Several speakers noted that the aviation industry is ripe for innovation in many areas, with a lack of investment in infrastructure and the highly regulated nature of air operations as some of the challenges to be overcome.
But Mike Formica, managing director of Hardware and AlphaLab Gear for Innovation Works and an engineer who has founded several startups, said the excitement was palpable among local tech entrepreneurs who went on several behind-the-scenes tours at Pittsburgh International Airport in the weeks leading up to the Summit.
He cited the sprawling paved expanses on the airfield that must be stringently cleared of foreign objects and debris, snow and other impediments on a daily basis by workers using heavy equipment and vehicles as a particular point of interest.
“We’ve had technology for a decade that could solve that problem,” he said. “But I didn’t know the airport had miles of concrete to inspect, and they presumably didn’t know we had AI and machine vision robotics tools that could help them with that.”
Those types of tools are coming sooner than many think, said Jorgen Pedersen, chief operating officer of Sarcos Robotics, which is exploring technology for baggage loading with Singapore Changi Airport and works with PIT to test in real-world environments.
Pedersen spoke on a panel that included Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Airport Authority, who elaborated on how PIT developed its organizational commitment to innovation.
“You cannot innovate if you do not allow people to take risks,” she said. “You cannot innovate if everybody is worried about not doing it perfectly. So in order to create a culture of innovation, you have to create a culture of trust.”
Unsurprisingly for a Summit revolving around building relationships that will yield tangible progress, there was a constant emphasis on partnership throughout the public remarks.
As attendees gazed out on 100-year-old steel bridges framing gleaming new buildings sprouting to support the Strip District’s central role in the region’s burgeoning tech ecosystem, Shapiro assured them they had a strong ally in the state capital.
“I want you to know, aside from all the plans and the policies and proposals and grants and budget investments, most importantly, I believe in you, and I believe that the future success of our Commonwealth depends on what happens in rooms like this,” he said.