A decade ago, the Wall Street Journal gave Pittsburgh the moniker “Roboburgh” when compiling its list of the nation’s 13 hottest high-tech regions. The Steel City is living up to its 21st-century nickname, making new its rich history of engineering complex things.
Scores of local robotics start-ups are driving economic growth by building innovative robots that can inspect sewer lines, dispense prescription drugs, and even warn fast-food workers how many burgers to throw on the grill before their customers step in the door.The city’s manufacturing legacy is providing the backdrop for this emergent industry, as old mills and factories are being converted into research labs and commercial space for robotics ventures, many with substantial government backing.
And of course, fueling this expansion is the commitment of Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute to becoming the international leader in robotics research and education.
Yet unlike the rise of big steel—whose ascendancy was literally scrawled across our skies—the robotics revolution in Pittsburgh is a quiet one.
The city might be rebranding itself as a major robotics hub, but in the public imagination, robots remain the purview of science fiction—superhero humanoids that can fly and fight crime—or the stuff of Hollywood, such as R2-D2 and C-3PO from “Star Wars.” Meanwhile, real-world robots either toil away in anonymity, or they are woefully misunderstood.
“Anything we can do that makes the public more aware of the impact that robotics technology is going to have on our lives is hugely important,” says William Thomasmeyer, president of the North-Shore-based National Center for Defense Robotics.Enter roboworld, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive permanent robotics exhibition, opening in June at the Carnegie Science Center.
The $3.4 million tourist attraction is being designed to spotlight the region’s achievements in the rapidly evolving field of robotics—and to give the general public an insider’s look at how robots are already changing the way we live and what advances are in the pipeline. “When you dig deeper, it is just absolutely amazing where robotics technology is leading us,” says Ann Metzger, co-director of the Carnegie Science Center. “And other than Pittsburgh, who else across the country has the credibility to tell that story?”
Slated to open June 13, roboworld will feature more than 30 hands-on exhibits organized under the core themes of robotic sensing, thinking and acting. The exhibition will occupy most of the Science Center’s second floor, which is undergoing a makeover to give it a sleek, futuristic feel similar to an Apple store. Visitors will be educated and entertained as they mingle with robots in action and learn how they work, according to Kim Amey, the exhibition’s project manager.
“Some of the exhibits are really going to blow you away,” says Amey, who worked as a development coordinator for the Sports & Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County before signing on to oversee the making of roboworld.
Highlights will include a “portrait” robot mounted on a rotating table that can construct an image of a human face from marbles in a matter of minutes. Visitors will play basketball, foosball and air hockey against some of the nimblest robo-jocks in the world. They will converse with a friendly “chatbot” greeting visitors at the entrance to the exhibition, watch a painting robot create original works of art, and learn how robots are being used to explore some of the most dangerous and remote places on Earth and beyond.
Funding for the exhibition came in large part from $1 million grants from the Grable Foundation and Mr. and Mrs. Robert P. Bozzone. But the Science Center also relied on the generosity of leading robotics manufacturers in the region, such as Aethon Inc. and McKesson Corp., which donated robots, software and expertise to the collaborative project.
Roboworld will also provide the first bricks-and-mortar home to the Robot Hall of Fame, formed in 2003 by CMU’s School of Computer Science to recognize excellence in robotics technology. Past inductees have included NASA’s Mars Sojourner, HAL 9000 from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and Honda’s wildly popular ASIMO robot. Visitors to the Science Center can have their pictures taken with these mechanical celebrities as a digital souvenir at the Holopix Station developed by students at Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.
Perhaps the most interesting component of roboworld is the robot workshop, where researchers can test the next generation of robotics technology with visitors, who can also try their hand at building and programming their own robot. Through this experience, younger audiences hopefully will see the many academic and career opportunities in robotics here in Pittsburgh, says Donald Jones, roboworld advisory chair and managing director of Draper Triangle Ventures.
Jones views roboworld as a way to plant the seeds needed to grow the robotics workforce in the region, which in turn will help to cement Pittsburgh’s position as an important center of the industry.“I think roboworld will pay dividends, not only by encouraging young children to look at careers in science and technology, but also to the city, attracting attention to the area and the robotics infrastructure we have,” Jones says.
And the timing could be just right, says David Bourne, principal scientist at CMU’s Robotics Institute and member of the roboworld advisory committee.
“In this terrible economy, robotics might seem off-subject. But when the economy turns down in a really big way, it can open opportunities to introduce innovative new products and ideas to the marketplace, and robotics is poised to do just that.”
In the not-so-distant future, robots are going to transform our daily lives, from medicine to the workplace, to manufacturing and the way we drive down the highway, Bourne says.
“It’s really time that we start getting our ideas out to the public, so they know how they can get involved and what robotics will mean to them.”