As you walk through Pittsburgh International Airport, you expect to see concession options, gates and an airfield full of planes out the window. But there’s something else a bit more unexpected going on, as well: dozens of new technologies being tested all around you.
Much of it is thanks to PIT’s xBridge program, a driver of innovation that’s developing and testing new technologies for the global aviation industry to help improve the passenger and airport partner experience.
PIT is the only airport in the world to have a partner like xBridge — an organization working with new tech, often developed in the region, designed for aviation and other industries. That’s especially true for tech involving automation.
“Pittsburgh is a global center of robotics, and we like to reflect that here at the airport when it comes to testing robotics,” said xBridge Director Cole Wolfson.
Wolfson likens the airport to a small city, with dozens of industries operating in and around it. That gives tech companies the chance to work with not only aviation but in other sectors at the same location.
“The great thing about the airport is that some of the companies that test with us get real-world experience that they can then use to improve their products and take into whatever industry they are ultimately aiming for,” Wolfson said. “Companies might also come to understand that there is a fantastic market for them in the world of aviation.”
xBridge has introduced a wide variety of technologies to airport operations. Since the innovation hub launched in late 2020, the airport has deployed security line sensors, teleoperated vehicles, autonomous robots and much more.
Many xBridge partners say they are thrilled to be able to use the airport as a testing ground. Just last year, Ecotone Renewables — a Pittsburgh-based company founded by three Carnegie Mellon University graduates — placed one of its waste digesters outside the landside terminal. The digester takes food waste and turns it into sustainable fertilizer. Months later, Ecotone has already seen growth.
“We’re looking to expand to other airports, so we’re really excited about the partnership at PIT so we can test [the waster digester] and see how it’s working out,” said Kyle Wyche, one of Ecotone’s founders. “We’re really here to support the airport in their mission of becoming more sustainable and diverting food waste from landfills.”
Last April, officials from International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways, joined PIT executives and local government and business leaders to announce a new chapter in their partnership: testing and growing innovations for IAG’s airline brands and the aviation industry at PIT.
IAG, one of the world’s largest airline groups, with brands such as Aer Lingus and Iberia in addition to BA, is leveraging PIT’s xBridge, which has a proven record of working with both established and startup technology companies.
Another xBridge partner, BioFlyte, started testing at PIT in the summer of 2023. As its technology focuses on scanning the air for more than 1,000 toxins, viruses and bacteria, the company quickly realized that an airport is an ideal environment for testing.
“xBridge has been a valuable partner throughout our testing phases at PIT by providing a platform to confirm both the operational reliability and analytical performance of our technology in a complex airport model,” said Todd Sickles, BioFlyte CEO.
The company was able to deploy its technology during the first-ever Aviation and Robotics Summit, an event returning to PIT this May.
“The Aviation and Robotics Summit brings together over 100 airlines, airports, OEMs and others to Pittsburgh with some of the researchers, technologists and startup companies here,” said Wolfson.
“By bringing together the global aviation industry with this incredible technology that we have here in Pittsburgh, we’re finding a way to shortcut the development of technologies, the identification of needs and the creation of solutions to benefit the industry as a whole.”
Ecotone CEO Dylan Lew demonstrates how its 8-foot by 20-foot automated container at PIT converts food waste into fertilizer using a complex system of pipes and tanks on May 23, 2023. (Photo by Beth Hollerich)
New terminal invites new tech
xBridge is just one component of PIT’s commitment to innovation. PIT CEO Christina Cassotis believes that as the Pittsburgh region continues to transform, its airport should too, which is why building an innovative new terminal is a priority. As it inches closer to a 2025 opening date, more companies will have more opportunities to bring their projects to PIT.
For Wolfson, the Terminal Modernization Program is a unique space to test technology and robotics still in their infancy. Wolfson sees the innovation hub as a bridge between what’s possible now and what’s possible for the future.
“There really is no limit to the technologies and the companies that we look at here at the airport because there really is no limit to the parts of our life that aviation touches,” Wolfson said. “As long as there are airports and as long as there is the Pittsburgh airport, PIT can be a key driver of those new technologies and innovations.”