Aviation and Robotics Summit: Creating What’s Next

Henry L. Hillman Foundation pledges $75K to fund project idea from conference

By gmastrangelo

Published May 20, 2024

Read Time: 4 mins


Aviation, robotics and other technologies need each other to build a future of air travel that leads with innovation.

That was the conclusion of last week’s second annual Aviation & Robotics Summit, hosted by Pittsburgh International Airport and Future Travel Experience.

This year’s summit drew aviation professionals from dozens of countries from around the world to work with Pittsburgh’s tech and robotics experts to identify major challenges in the industry and work together to find solutions.

“It’s important to bring all of these global leaders in robotics and aviation, all of these innovators, to see firsthand the innovation in Pittsburgh,” said Matt Smith, chief growth officer at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. “Places like Carnegie Mellon University, (and companies) on robotics row, those global leaders in robotics and aviation to see actually what’s happening now in Pittsburgh, I think will be really eye-opening for a lot of the visitors.”

The summit attendees left the three-day event with a newfound understanding of Pittsburgh as an international hub for innovation – and a pledge of financial backing to take one of the conference workshop ideas to the next stage of development.

Pittsburgh’s Henry L. Hillman Foundation pledged $75,000 to the Allegheny County Airport Authority Charitable Foundation to explore the initial stages of commercialization of one of the ideas coming out of the conference workshops. In consultation with technologists, entrepreneurs, and members of the aviation industry, the airport will select one of the ideas developed in the workshops by a group of aviation attendees and local technologists, and begin the commercialization process, which could include building a prototype, validating the market opportunity, conducting additional customer discovery, and more, depending on the idea. The product would then be tested at PIT.

“I’d like to thank the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, with whom we have partnered with on several industry-leading projects over the years, for all they do for our community and especially in showing how Pittsburgh really is invested in innovation at all levels,” PIT CEO Christina Cassotis said. “This grant continues to set us apart and shows that our region is a global leader in aviation and robotics.”

At Carnegie Mellon University, the second annual Aviation and Robotics Summit included leaders from airlines, airports and robotics & technology companies leading panels that initiated discussions on the future of innovation in the aviation industry. (Photo by Joe Appel/Blue Sky News)

Collaboration feeds innovation

On the final morning of the workshop, attendees sat together in one room to put pens to paper and produce ideas that could revolutionize aviation. They met in small groups to create solutions to everything from baggage handling to terminal operations.

Nicole Hodges-Austin, manager of Airport Innovation at Frontier – an airline that tripled its network at PIT the same week as the summit – attended the event last year and couldn’t wait to participate in the workshops once again.

“I took something tangible from that event, and I fully expect to take something tangible from this one,” Hodges-Austin said. “It’s an incredible opportunity to not just sit there and complain about the problems, or to just preach about what you want to do. We’re making things happen.”

Reeg Allen, a second-year summit attendee and founder & CEO of Journey Robotix, called the event “invaluable.” Last year, he attended as an executive with Sarcos Robotics, formerly known as RE2, which was an early participant in xBridge, a PIT-based program that tests new technologies for the industry.

“PIT helped us get connections with an airline,” he said. “To get that data early really helped us create a development program.”

Using tech to redefine travel

During the summit, participants got a front-row seat to the story of xBridge, PIT’s in-house technology hub. They learned about not only the current iteration of the program in action but also hear about its origins.

“xBridge is really a story of evolution. It’s about trying to figure out what is unique to this airport, what is unique to this region, how this industry works, and where we fit into it all,” Cole Wolfson, director of xBridge said.

As a champion of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Executive Sara Innamorato was thrilled to see the summit draw so many people to the city, especially to see what the airport is doing with xBridge.

“We’ve taken what it means to be an airport and really expanded that in things like xBridge and in tech companies to be on site for the airport so that they can bring new innovations, so that they can try out new concepts that they can put into work,” Innamorato said.

As PIT moves closer to opening its new, state-of-the-art terminal, keeping innovation at the forefront of operations through programs like xBridge is key.

“I’ve already seen examples last year that things are happening out there now that never would have happened otherwise,” said Daniel Coleman, founder of Future Travel Experience. “And I think in 20 years’ time when we look back, I think there’ll be a huge amount that will say that [tech] was birthed at one of these events.”

David Kellner, VP of Infrastructure & Energy at PIT, showcased how PIT’s baggage system will change once the new terminal opens in 2025. Kellner detailed how the new system will improve the passenger experience through modernized tech and shorter wait times.

xBridge has a place in the new terminal too; as the terminal develops and grows, there will be a need for testing new technology.

A city that innovates

Attendees also toured some of Pittsburgh’s emerging and established tech companies, further enhancing the city’s reputation as a tech hub.

During the summit’s closing remarks, Cassotis asked the room full of attendees if any of them had ever been to another conference where they had the chance to work with one another to create solutions to some of the problems that bother them every day. None of them had – an illustration of the difference this summit is bringing to the industry.

“The conference itself is an innovation,” she said to the room. “Here’s to creating what’s next; that’s what we’re all here to do.”

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