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Pittsburgh Airport Project Works to Detect Airborne Toxins

The Pittsburgh International Airport is spearheading a first-of-its-kind bioaerosol identification and detection technology pilot to help discover potentially hazardous airborne toxins.

xBridge Innovation Center at Pittsburgh International Airport
Credit: xBridge Innovation Center, Pittsburgh International Airport
The Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT) is spearheading a first-of-its-kind bioaerosol identification and detection technology pilot that has the potential to detect hazardous airborne toxins.

The project — slated to launch on Sept. 18 — is a collaboration between the airport and BioFlyte, a pioneering bioaerosol surveillance firm known for fieldable tools dedicated to the collection, detection and identification of biological threats. PIT itself also has a track record of innovation.

In 2020, it launched the xBridge Innovation Center — an innovation hub that provides a platform for startup technology companies to create and cultivate ideas that drive technological advancements in the aviation industry. Via the xBridge hub, visitors to PIT can witness Mapless AI testing through remote-controlled vehicles in the airport parking lot or immerse themselves in the world of AlgenAir's commercial-sized aeriums, which harness algae to reduce carbon dioxide and generate oxygen.

BioFlyte CEO Todd Sickles was first connected to the xBridge program through a venture capital firm that felt a collaboration would be a perfect match.

“Pittsburgh has traditionally been a thought leader in technology innovation,” Sickles said. “After initial reach outs, we learned more about the xBridge program, including how firms can apply and are selected. It evolved from there.”

BioFlyte’s bioaerosol identifier uses several emerging technologies to collect and analyze aerosol samples for biological and chemical threats. Using a Matrix Assisted Laser Desorption/Ionization (MALDI) time-of-flight mass spectrometer, the company incorporates robotics, AI and machine learning algorithms to continuously screen for over 1,100 toxins, viruses and bacteria with up to 95 percent accuracy. Each test, from collection to identification, is completed within five minutes.

To ensure their existing BioFlyte tools would seamlessly integrate into the PIT system and meet all requirements for this particular pilot, the BioFlyte team had a specific set of objectives.

“The first thing we did was a proof-of-concept phase because we wanted to showcase that we could accurately and quickly detect certain species from the air for PIT, while also ensuring the operational reliability of the instruments, and that phase was successful,” Sickles said. "Now, we're set to begin a two- to three-week pilot phase focused on determining the precise number of sensors, triggers and integration elements needed to establish a fully functional solution."

With a sophisticated system encompassing intricate data structures and diverse technology components, the company has adopted a proactive strategy to help mitigate false positives in detection, centered on its time-of-flight mass spectrometry instrumentation.

“That instrument is at a couple of strategic points throughout the airport, and we complement it with fluorescent triggers located in concourses and other places that serve as early detection devices,” Sickles said. “So, if they detect something in the air, it may not know exactly what it is, but the technology identifies it's foreign or uncommon and shouldn't be here, which triggers our device so it can accurately assess what that particular species is based on its mass.”

This is how the system efficiently differentiates between anthrax and fentanyl or any other unharmful aerosol in the air at a particular time, Sickles added.

Cole Wolfson, the director of PIT’s xBridge Center, said that his experience working with the BioFlyte team has been a seamless one.

“It was easy working with the BioFlyte team on this pilot because typically one of our biggest hurdles in bringing a new tech company into the hub is ensuring they understand the airport protocols,” he said. “But working with Todd and the BioFlyte team, it's been one of our simpler deployments because they come out of this aviation world, and their products and services are uniquely built to address these types of needs.”

Sickles also spoke to whether this type of bioaerosol identification technology will soon be adopted by other airports.

“Every airport is different, but there's a lot of commonalities as well,” he said. “It's like the old 80/20 rule, meaning 80 percent of what we're learning in Pittsburgh can be applied to another airport. The remaining 20 percent is customization based on the number of passengers, passenger flow pressure, IVAC systems and the geography of the airport.”
Ashley Silver is a staff writer for Government Technology. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from the University of Montevallo and a graduate degree in public relations from Kent State University. Silver is also a published author with a wide range of experience in editing, communications and public relations.