FOR most of this century, Pittsburgh breathed steel the way Detroit exhales cars. When the mills closed, the city drifted away from its manufacturing roots. Now it has a chance to jump back into the race, thanks to an emerging new technology: mobile robots.
``A few years from now, we will reflect on having created Pittsburgh as `Robot City, USA,' '' says Red Whittaker, director of the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU).
``Just recently, people have realized this concept of `Robot City,' '' says Allan Branch, managing director of an Australian mobile-robotics company. ``It's been happening anyway.''
Robotics activity is on an upswing here:
* Mr. Branch is transplanting to Pittsburgh a Wilmington, Mass., mobile-robotics concern he bought. He is also setting up in the city the United States operations of his Australian company.
* NASA earlier last month announced a $2.5 million grant to CMU's Robotics Institute to establish an engineering consortium. The new organization aims to transfer its robotics technology to American industry.
* Scott Minor is moving his Seabrook, Conn., engineering and machining company to Pittsburgh to pursue mobile robotics.
These new organizations join the small infrastructure already in place: two small start-up companies, RedZone Robotics and K2T Inc., as well as the Robotics Institute, which has done much of the pioneering work in mobile robotics. ``CMU is pretty much known around the world as the leader in this technology,'' says Mr. Minor, whose first robot will do agricultural work.
The robots being built here are a far cry from the industrial robots popular 10 years ago. Those machines stayed in one place, did repetitive tasks, and could work only in highly controlled environments, such as specially designed factories. Almost all the US companies that pursued that technology failed or were snapped up by Japanese and European competitors.
Robots on the move
The new breed of robots are mobile. The Robotics Institute created an Army Humvee called Navlab II that can drive itself at 55 miles an hour, built a six-legged walking robot named Ambler that can pick its way through mountainous terrain, and is working on several industrial robots that clean up hazardous-waste sites and other dangerous areas.
This latter category is fueling much of the early momentum for the technology. Researchers are building robots that can remove asbestos from industrial pipes and clean fuel-storage tanks - a time-consuming and dangerous task for people. Dr. Whittaker sees other early uses in industries such as mining and timber. NASA wants to use the machines to explore Mars and beyond.
``We are looking at robotics being the main ... way to get instruments onto the planet's surface,'' says Sam Venneri, director of NASA's Office of Advanced Concepts and Technology.
Robotics boosters see markets emerging far beyond industry. When the German sports-shoe company Adidas needed to create a soccer-ball-kicking machine, it tapped Pittsburgh-based Bally Design Inc. and two Robotics Institute researchers to design and build it. The machine will test the company's soccer shoes more consistently than real players can.
``We are talking about a set of technologies that companies all over the world are going to be utilizing,'' says David Pahnos, director of the new NASA-CMU consortium. ``The opportunity for Pittsburgh is to be one of those technical centers that pushes the technology forward and, as a technical center, acts as a magnet for business.''
But Pittsburgh isn't alone, says Rod Brooks, associate director of the artificial-intelligence laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His own institution in Cambridge, Mass., as well as several California research efforts, could spark industry growth in those regions.
Some Pittsburgh entrepreneurs are skeptical about Robot City. ``I would not try to claim that Pittsburgh is the robotics center,'' says Todd Simonds, chief executive of RedZone Robotics. ``You need people buying robots. And Pittsburgh is not particularly favored as a market for robots.''
Instead, Mr. Simonds sees competitors setting up shop near hazardous federal facilities needing robots to clean up. ``If we had a filthy nuclear-weapons plant in Pittsburgh, we'd be booming,'' he adds.
Interestingly, in 1870, Pittsburgh didn't have all the necessary ingredients for a steel industry, either. Unskilled labor had to be brought in. Entrepreneurs had to create a new business structure. Yet the steel industry took hold here just as cars did later in Detroit and computers in California's Silicon Valley.
``It's more than an expertise; it's a culture,'' says Whittaker, who is the most outspoken booster of Pittsburgh as Robot City. ``In some ways those cultures are created.... There's a tremendous amount of enterprise around Pittsburgh. There's actually a consciousness for it here.''