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Pittsburgh is robot country

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

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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.

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“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.”