PIT Solidifies Reputation as Center of Innovation

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The xBridge at Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is a place where companies can collaborate and get creative. Now that three local firms have joined, the space is buzzing with new ideas poised to increase efficiency and safety during a time when new solutions are being welcomed with open arms.

For PIT’s airport operator Allegheny County Airport Authority, partnerships with tech companies extend beyond the superficial, especially if the xBridge is involved. Spun out of the facility’s need for a physical space to test high-tech prototypes in a real-world environment, the xBridge is a 10,000 square-foot location at the end of Concourse B featuring a jet bridge and ramp area. Katherine Karolick, senior vice-president of Information Technology at PIT, is quick to point out that the physical space xBridge provides is only as valuable as what it’s used for. Thanks to regular brainstorming and ideation sessions, xBridge churns out minimal viable products much sooner than a traditional product development model would allow, which delivers value for passengers and airline partners sooner too.

The first company involved with xBridge was Honeywell, which developed a dashboard that measures air quality in real time and adjusts the HVAC system based on the level of carbon dioxide, humidity, volatile organic compounds and particulate matter. Trials were successful, and the airport is considering expanding the technology throughout the airport.

Honeywell’s John Isherwood provides a demonstration of the airport air quality dashboard inside PIT’s xBridge. (Photo: Beth Hollerich, Pittsburgh International Airport)

Now, three other companies will test and develop their products at xBridge: Carnegie Robotics, RE2 and Zensors. All the firms are based in Pittsburgh, and two of them have previous ties to the airport. Zensors deployed an artificial intelligence system in 2019 that inspects security camera footage to calculate queue wait times. Now the company says it’s ready to take its product to the next level and analyze a myriad of other data points. “We want to be able to run artificial intelligence on the gate when the planes are loading. For example, we’ll start looking at what type of baggage is brought on board,” said Chris Harrison, co-founder,  Zensors. He added that the company will explore applications around litter and restroom utilization as well.

Carnegie Robotics is using xBridge as a testing ground for its autonomous floor scrubbers. Four of them roam the airport already, and the company now has its sights set on building more advanced models with stronger ultraviolet lamps. “It’s been great to be able to work at the airport to test it here at a time when there’s a lot of stress on hospitals,” said Carnegie Robotics’ chief financial officer, Daniel  Beaven.

RE2 develops mobile robotic arms for use in a variety of complex environments that provide human-like capabilities beyond traditional industrial arms. The company’s mission is to empower humans to do their jobs safely and efficiently. RE2’s CEO, Jorgen Pedersen, noted that having access to a real-world testing ground provides the company with invaluable data that it uses to make informed decisions.

While partnerships can create new revenue streams, Karolick said this is not the driving force behind the airport’s innovation efforts. She mentioned that xBridge is helping the airport save money, as it tests some of the materials it’s considering for use in its billion-dollar terminal modernization program. “We can use proposed finishes and fixtures in the xBridge and get first-hand experience with installing and maintaining them before committing to them.”

Katherine Karolick, SVP IT, Pittsburgh International Airport

Most importantly, xBridge delivers solutions at speed during a time of crisis. “We don’t have the luxury of taking months to plan out projects, and years to build. Passenger counts at PIT were down 63% last year. We need to accelerate solutions to the industry that ensure the safety of our passengers and reduce costs for our airline partners.” Expect xBridge to continue tapping into the rich pool of startups, tech firms and universities in Pittsburgh. “The xBridge brings it all together.”

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