Pittsburgh is robot country

Growing out of its industry roots, Pittsburgh is now the Silicon Valley of droid design.

By , Staff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor

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    The new steelers: A droid sheep munches on a lawn.
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Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens here has done away with its lawn mower and hired a robotic sheep to trim the lawn. Just down the street, visitors at the Carnegie Library can flip through a book while sitting in the belly of a colorful, robotic tent that gently swirls around them. Meanwhile, in a nearby park, Jennifer Gooch works with a friend on the latest addition to the city’s series of robotic installations, putting the final touches on a tiny island of flags that raise and lower as viewers walk around the piece.

Built by artists with little to no engineering experience, these projects are part of Robot 250, a celebration that coincides with Pittsburgh’s 250th birthday and aims to democratize robotics by bringing them to the general public.

More important, it’s a month-long demonstration of how the city is becoming a Silicon Valley for robotics.

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The combination of Carnegie Mellon University’s pioneering robotics program and leftovers from the city’s industrial past have created something of a perfect storm that is fostering the development of the next generation of robotics.

“Pittsburgh offers a special chance to look at robotics,” says Carl DiSalvo, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s digital media program and one of the cocreators of Robot 250. “Because of [CMU’s] robotics institute being here … and there’s also an interesting history of the relationship between robotics and labor and the city that makes Pittsburgh a unique place to look at robotics.”

Robots have been a part of the Steel City for nearly a third of its 250-year history. In 1927, Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Company created a robot for a dam that physically picked up a telephone and could then raise or lower the water level based on the tone of the phone.

But the city’s first celebrity robots didn’t debut until the late 1930s. Westinghouse created several robots, most notably Electro, that could walk, talk, distinguish between red and green, shoot a gun, and even smoke a cigar. Why a robot would need to do all of those things remains a mystery lost to the ages.

By 1940, Westinghouse ensured that their metallic Marlboro Man would never be lonely with the creation of Sparko, a robotic dog. Like any good canine, Sparko only took commands from his owner and could bark, sit, and wag his tail.

While the Westinghouse robots were largely promotional gimmicks, Ed Reis, a historian at Pittsburgh’s Senator John Heinz History Center, says, “It was kind of crude by today’s standards, but to me, in 1940 to have one robot, Electro, controlling another robot, Sparko, was a pretty advanced idea.”

The Westinghouse creations would come to represent the type of robotic innovation that defines what some call the Robo-Burgh. Unlike Detroit’s massive assembly line droids, Pittsburgh specializes in robots capable of interacting with life outside the factory.

Now, local companies are making robots that can navigate sewers, move cargo, and even determine what you’ll order at a fast-food restaurant before you step through the door.

“It’s really just been in the last few years that we’ve seen real product-driven, market-focused [robots] emerge,” says William Thomasmeyer, president of the Pittsburgh-based National Center for Defense Robotics, a federally funded consortium of companies, universities, and government labs.

Today there are more than 30 robotic companies in Pittsburgh. And along with Boston and San Francisco, the city is considered to be one of America’s major hubs for robotic innovation.

Still, the industry is young enough that it makes little, if any noticeable difference to a city’s economy – but if current trends continue Mr. Thomasmeyer says that within the next five to 10 years it could become one of Pittsburgh’s top industries. For now, it’s been a quiet revolution.

“[Robotics companies] are all in these nondescript warehouses at the end of somebody’s street or in an industrial park. I think a lot of Pittsburgh robotics is more well-known internationally than by the people living down the street who don’t know what these companies do,” says Dennis Bateman, a native of western Pennsylvania who admits that he didn’t even know about Pittsburgh’s role in the robotics industry until he became the project director of Robot 250 last year.

Already robo firms are starting to rebuild areas of the city blighted by the disappearance of big steel. Old mills and factories make ideal homes for robotic firms, which require uninhabited open spaces to test their various contraptions.

“We see the potential for major land developments based around robotics,” says Bill Widdoes, project coordinator for the Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC), a private, nonprofit economic development group in Pittsburgh. “It’s really satisfying to see those sites from the last great industry becoming part of the next great industry in Pittsburgh.”

Notably, RIDC has converted a former chocolate factory into offices for several robotic firms.

With businesses moving back into Pittsburgh, CMU operating a major robotics research center a few doors down from the old chocolate factory, and a new Children’s Hospital slated to open in about a year, the once-ailing Lawrenceville neighborhood has seen residential property values quadruple in the last 15 years, according to the RIDC.

Whether or not robotics restores all of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods, those driving the industry hope to make it a community effort.

“The dream is that you’re giving people a relationship to technology that’s long-term,” says Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics at CMU and cocreator of Robot 250, “changing their viewpoint as a consumer, and thinking of themselves as somebody who can be an inventor or producer.”

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