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Carnegie Mellon lab cleared for take off at Pittsburgh International Airport

Aaron Aupperlee
| Thursday, April 19, 2018, 1:48 p.m.
Passengers walk by the 'Arch' sculpture and Baron Batch's Live Painting Exhibit on Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Pittsburgh International Airport.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Passengers walk by the 'Arch' sculpture and Baron Batch's Live Painting Exhibit on Thursday, July 30, 2015, in Pittsburgh International Airport.
Passengers walk across the newly painted floor of Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, July 30, 2015.
Keith Hodan | Trib Total Media
Passengers walk across the newly painted floor of Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday, July 30, 2015.

Pittsburgh International Airport turned to Carnegie Mellon University to help make it the smartest airport in the world.

Researchers from CMU's Metro21 Smart Cities Institute established a lab inside the airport and will work on projects to make the airport easier and faster to navigate, improve passengers' experience and find other innovations.

“I want to see what AI can do out here,” Allegheny County Airport Authority CEO Christina Cassotis said at a news conference Thursday announcing the partnership. “I want to see what is possible.”

Cassotis and CMU President Farnam Jahanian signed an agreement Thursday formalizing a partnership between the university and the airport. CMU has worked with airport on projects that include an app to help travelers find open parking spots; embedded sensors to help the visually impaired better navigate the terminals; and an art installation designed by a professor at the university's School of Art.

“These innovations not only improve the experience of airport travelers but they also draw people into our city's vibrant and innovative culture,” Jahanian said. “We've been proud of what we've achieved so far but that is just the tip of the iceberg.”

CMU will work with the airport on innovations in the current airport and help plan for its $1.1 billion project to modernize the facility. CMU students and researchers are working out of about 240 square feet of space in Concourse A. The team might move into a larger space as projects expand and will have dedicated space in the airport's redesigned terminal.

No specific projects were outlined by university of airport officials. Cassotis said projects help passengers with mobility issues or other disabilities or move passengers through security checkpoints faster. No airport money will be used to fund university research, Cassotis said.

Raj Rajkumar, director of the Metro21 Smart Cities Institute, said researchers could work on placing sensors around the airport that would give travelers better information about wait times or how long it takes to get from one place to another. Both Rajkumar and Cassotis stressed the work will likely come out of new ideas proposed once researchers spend more time at the airport.

Rajkumar said Metro21 has secured funding from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Heinz Endowments to begin work at the airport. Additional funding will come through state and federal research grants and from companies working on smart city and airport innovations.

“The goal is to make the airport smarter while making it more convenient and usable,” Rajkumar said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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