Aviation Meets Pittsburgh Tech at First-Ever Global Summit

Industry leaders join forces with roboticists to solve real-world travel issues

By Matt Neistei

Published April 10, 2023

Read Time: 3 mins


Airline and airport executives from around the world face some daunting challenges, from sustainability to logistics to customer experience, made even more difficult by the need to stay profitable in a highly competitive environment.

So they’re coming to Pittsburgh to find solutions.

The aviation leaders arrive in mid-April to participate in the first-ever Aviation & Robotics Summit, an invitation-only conference designed to connect them with roboticists based in one of the world’s preeminent technology hubs.

“With Pittsburgh’s world-leading Robotics Row as our backyard, and the very special relationship we have developed with airlines around the globe, Pittsburgh is the most obvious location to hold this summit,” said Christina Cassotis, CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority. “We hope it can turn into an annual event for automation and aviation.”

The summit is a joint effort between Pittsburgh’s Innovation Works, which is leading with 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.

“This event encapsulates what we, at the airport, are all about: finding innovative opportunities to build partnerships that move the industry and our community forward,” Cassotis said.

Behind the scenes

While the three-day event technically begins on April 18, ACAA officials have already taken local roboticists on a series of behind-the-scenes tours at PIT to give them a firsthand understanding of the complex systems and organizations that are necessary for the safe, secure, around-the-clock operation of a major airport.

The tours were an eye-opening experience even for people who are on the cutting edge of technology, said Mike Schilling, a senior engineer at Carnegie Mellon University and director of hardware engineering for startup CleanRobotics.

“It was great to see behind closed doors and meet the people that keep the airport operational, through all kinds of changes and weather,” he said. “I work on some pretty cool stuff, but it never fails to amaze me how these systems operate.”

That baseline knowledge will help technologists and researchers like Schilling dive into real-time problem solving with their aviation counterparts, who they will meet at an opening night reception at Vision on 15th—in what has come to be known as Robotics Row in Pittsburgh’s Strip District neighborhood.

Similarly, aviation executives who arrive at PIT before the summit will get a close-up look at the airport’s xBridge innovation program, which serves as a test bed for startups and established companies to pilot new technologies in a real-world operating environment.

The leaders will view demos of successful projects such as algae-powered air filtration, teleoperated vehicles, a robotics- and AI-enabled anaerobic waste digester, revolutionary bio-threat detection solutions, and more.

The airport is continuously seeking out new partners with interesting ideas that may improve sustainability, customer experience and more, said xBridge Director Cole Wolfson.

After the welcome reception, participants will spend Wednesday morning learning about Carnegie Mellon University’s world-leading computer science, robotics, AI and machine learning programs, followed by tours of Pittsburgh companies, such as Sarcos Robotics.

Participants will then gather in workshop sessions to identify specific problems that the aviation leaders and tech companies can tackle together.

Those groups will reconvene on Thursday to start plotting possible robotics-enabled solutions and the business cases that will support them. That afternoon, teams will present their work to a guest panel of Pittsburgh investors, who will evaluate and provide feedback on the presentations, paying special attention to the potential for commercializing these ideas.

The ideas generated in the workshops serve only as a jumping-off point for potential companies, partnerships and technologies. The true value of the summit comes from the relationships being built between Pittsburgh’s world-class tech sector and the global aviation community, said Daniel Coleman, founder & CEO of Future Travel Experience, one of the meeting’s organizers.

“Innovation and collaboration have always been at the heart of FTE and I’m delighted that these two themes are central to the Aviation & Robotics Summit, too,” he said. “Bringing together a selection of the brightest minds from the worlds of aviation and robotics in Pittsburgh, the robotics capital of the world, is sure to result in invaluable new partnerships and long-term benefits for airlines, airports and the entire air transport industry.”

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