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William 'Red ' Whittaker

Pittsburgh is a global leader when it comes to robotics research and development, hosting numerous companies in the field drawn to the city's rich industrial heritage, highly skilled workforce and the expertise coming out of Carnegie Mellon University. Natasha Turak looks at how the city is building on this reputation.

There is a reason why international transportation network Uber chose Pittsburgh as the launch city for its autonomous vehicles lab and the site of its first public unveiling of driverless cars. Raffi Krikorian, engineering director at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center and the man behind the company’s driverless revolution, spoke to fDi at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh. “Being here with the Carnegie Mellon University [CMU] robotics centre, one of the best robotics departments in the world, gives us access to so much talent. We have a really close partnership, which enables us to work with research and industry right here in the city.” 

Pittsburgh stands out as one of the top robotics research hubs in the US, making it a leader worldwide. A ranking by design and technology website Gizmodo named Pittsburgh the second best city in the world for robotics, following only Boston but ahead of San Francisco, Tokyo and Seoul.

A robo-hub 

Robust R&D, a broad array of private-public partnerships and abundant human talent are counted among the resources that make Pittsburgh fertile ground for robotics companies. Some of the city’s most prominent players in the field are Uber Technologies, RedZone Robotics, Astrobotic Technologies, Carnegie Robotics, the CMU National Robotics Engineering Center and the CMU Robotics Institute.

Founded in 1979, the CMU Robotics Institute consists of 76 faculty members, 94 PhD students and 132 master’s students and it has produced a large number of robotics entrepreneurs. Big names include Chris Urmson, now head of Google’s self-driving car programme; Mark Maimone, who pilots NASA's Curiosity on Mars project; and William 'Red' Whittaker, a professor, the institute’s father, and the founder of the discipline of field robotics.

Since the institute’s founding, it has developed unmanned vehicles to clean up the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear accident site, it has brought CMU to victory in the $2m Urban Challenge robotic autonomous vehicles race, and Mr Whittaker and his team now plan to land and operate a robot on the moon in pursuit of the $20m Google Lunar XPrize.

Why Pittsburgh?

“I chose Pittsburgh both at a time of and because of declining traditional industry,” says Mr Whittaker. “I was looking for a place that had a good technical base, tremendous work ethic, affordable living, where people could come from anywhere and make it big.” One thing that stood out to Mr Whittaker was the sites available for use. “One thing you can really find in this town is incredible buildings and sites,” he says. “You can find acreage, which is so essential to the kind of technologies that matter in farming, mining and driving – these are applications you just can’t do at a computer in a cubicle. Robotics has a physical manifestation beyond its intellectual content.”

No sector will go untouched by robotics, according to Mr Whittaker. Whether it is innovations in mining, agriculture, advanced manufacturing, automotives, healthcare or space and defence, he says “the common denominator in all of them is robotics”.

“Pittsburgh is an incredible corner of the world for making things. You can make just about anything in this town. Electronics, precision mechanisms, sensors, software – robotics is the economic engine that drives investment forward,” says Mr Whittaker. “General Motors has embarked on a $1bn centre for autonomy, and the likes of Ford, Uber and Tesla are going after this revolution as well. That is billions and billions of dollars, that is jobs, and it’s a huge investment in the kind of technologies that continue to push this along, where all of it begets more of it and it really builds on itself.”

The bigger picture

While university research and government funding – particularly from the US Department of Defense and space agencies – have provided both the support and client base for the robotics community to thrive, Pittsburgh is now working to develop this expertise into commercial success. 

“What’s so important is that this gets beyond the doors of a university and into the world,” says Mr Whittaker. “So we collaborate with [construction and engineering company] Caterpillar, and that is decades of infusing automation features into machines for mining and construction. Caterpillar is the biggest and best in class in what it does in the world. It is clear that automation is its future.” Mr Whittaker cites John Deere as another example of an agricultural machinery company that is leading the way when it comes to robotics.  

“These are the companies who have the means to be first movers and to go big,” he says. “They are all tremendous technological partners. That moves it along, and it isn’t slowing down.” The Pittsburgh Robotics network currently comprises about 20 companies and counting – in terms of tech firms in general, the Pittsburgh region counts about 1600.   

The centre of robotics 

Confirming Pittsburgh’s allure for robotics companies is Jeff Christensen, vice-president at Seegrid, a firm developing autonomous 3D vision navigation in robotic machinery. Simply put, the company “teaches machines how to see”. Seegrid’s vision-guided industrial vehicles are now being deployed by major manufacturing and retail clients all over the world. Its partnerships with local supermarket chain Giant Eagle and forklift truck manufacturer Raymond support its development and funding. 

“To me, Pittsburgh is the centre of robotics,” says Mr Christensen, who is a Michigan native. “CMU is obviously a major driver for that; a lot of us went to school there, and there is a feeder programme for people who are really great in computer science and robotics.” 

Pittsburgh is an excellent place to live compared to Silicon Valley, he adds. “The cost of living compared to Silicon Valley is fantastic and all of the talent is here. Pittsburgh has a historical reputation for building things – that as a mentality has stayed with the community, and I’m drawn to it.”  

A past and future 

CMU has fostered numerous spin-off companies such as Near Earth Autonomy, which develops unmanned aerospace technology, and Edge Case Research, a custom software programming and testing firm. Edge Case uses its expertise in autonomous functional safety to help industrial clients manage the increasing complexity of machine-learning algorithms. It works in autonomous vehicles, the Internet of Things, consumer electronics and industrial power systems. The small team of 10 people serves 20 clients from both the commercial world – including Fortune 500 companies – and the US military. 

“The base of industry here has been important to many of our programmes,” says Mike Wagner, Edge Case CEO and CMU alumnus. “I’ve worked on several vehicles programmes where we needed welders, machinists and technicians, and having all those available was huge for us. Pittsburgh has always been a superstar for that kind of thing.” 

Representing the first generation of his family not to work for US Steel, Mr Wagner believes that these new ideas have been percolating in Pittsburgh for some time, but rest of the world had not been ready for them. “If you look at the kind of things that are being commercialised now, those were ideas developed here in the early 2000s,” he says. 

“I think a clear transformation has happened here,” says Seegrid’s Mr Christensen. “The hi-tech transformation is very strong across the whole region – robotics is really coming into its own. If Pittsburgh’s reputation moves from steel to computer-guided steel – if that’s what a robot is – that is a really healthy move, and it takes us into the next century.” 

This article is sourced from fDi Magazine
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