A dozen whiteboards. Two flatscreen monitors. Piles of sticky notes and markers. Enough tables and chairs for about 70 people.
It was a decidedly low-tech environment in a second-floor space overlooking Pittsburgh’s famed Robotics Row last week, but not much else was needed to spark ideas that will change the global aviation industry.
The secret ingredient? Some of the smartest minds from international airlines and airports meeting with some of the smartest minds from the one of the world’s leading robotics and AI scenes as part of the first-ever Aviation & Robotics Summit.
“I think the summit is a breakthrough event for Pittsburgh’s tech scene,” said Kirk Botula, chief strategy operations officer for event co-organizer Innovation Works.
“Tech startups face an uphill battle accessing the voice of the customer with enough breadth to represent a critical mass of the market. The Summit shows a possible way forward in which you can imagine compressing what takes some companies two years of effort into two days.”
‘Shark Tank’ challenge
In the concluding chapter of the event, participants pitched their ideas in front of three experienced Pittsburgh investors, “Shark Tank”-style.
Yes, people who had met each other only a day earlier and knew very little about each other’s industries worked together to develop advanced solutions that withstood probing analysis from seasoned investors in a matter of just a few hours.
And perhaps the most shocking part—or maybe not shocking at all, given who was involved—is that the bright working space above a bike shop might end up being the birthplace of products that could roll out sooner than anyone imagined.
The nature of the Summit workshops required some level of privacy for participants, who would be discussing confidential information, so the sessions were closed to the public. But Blue Sky News was allowed to observe, provided identifying details were withheld from published stories.
After an opening night reception, and a morning of touring Carnegie Mellon University, Sarcos Robotics and Carnegie Robotics, participants broke into groups and spent two four-hour brainstorming sessions on Wednesday and Thursday using a human-centered design approach to come up with technological solutions for some of aviation’s toughest challenges.
On a strict clock, 10 teams—each comprised equally of aviation and tech experts—took turns making five-minute pitches to Botula; Ilana Diamond, managing partner at 412 Venture Fund LP; and Afshan Khan, portfolio executive, hardware, at Innovation Works.
“As a partner in an early-stage VC investment fund, I was excited to get an early look at cutting-edge aviation technology innovations,” Diamond said. “Our region is a world leader in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, all technologies that hold great promise for advancing the aviation industry.”
Ideas covered key aviation sectors like ramp operations, passenger experience, baggage handling and more, and the groups’ solutions often proposed software and hardware innovation, including advanced robotics.
After each presentation, the judges asked questions that focused on the viability of the proposal, timelines for implementation and product scalability, among other issues.
Aviation & Robotics Summit participants gather outside the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University on Wednesday, April 19, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Innovation Works)
After conferring closely for about 10 minutes, the judges chose an asset management and security system proposed by a group that included members from a well-known U.S. airline and a leading Pittsburgh robotics company.
But it was a tough call, they said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see several successful new businesses spinning out of the Summit,” Diamond said. “After the event wrapped up, I heard some of the teams discussing how they could move forward to commercialize the ideas that the Summit sparked.”
Not surprisingly for an event where participants were asked to “create the future,” talk quickly turned to what was next for the Summit.
In her closing remarks, Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport, a co-organizer of the Summit, assured attendees the event would be held again in 2024, prompting a strong round of applause.
However, it didn’t seem as if anyone was waiting until then to start working. Connecting the aviation and robotics industries—and the innovative people leading the way in each—was the overarching goal of the Summit, and the sparks of creativity that ensued lit the way forward for everyone involved.
“The pitches were terrific,” Botula said. “What is most critical, however, were not the particulars of any specific solution but the shared experience and relationships that will serve as the context for continued innovation.”