PITTSBURGH — I’m sitting on the floor of a small office in the Lawrenceville neighborhood surrounded by machines that would fit right in with a movie about the robot uprising. One of them, a “hexapod” named Daisy, is the stuff of nightmares: a six-legged, giant, insect-like robot with blood red joints and black legs. It was built specifically for a display in the traveling museum exhibit Robot Revolution that lets visitors control these machines.
“They came to us and said, ‘We want something horrifying, and we thought this is kind of horrifying and fun'” says Bob Raida, chief operating officer of HEBI Robotics, after I remark on Daisy’s disconcerting disposition.
HEBI makes custom robots and also developed a software and hardware platform that makes it easier for companies, researchers and others to build robots of their own. It’s one of approximately 25 robotics companies clustered in this neighborhood and the nearby Strip District. That includes companies that manufacture robots as well as others like Uber and Argo AI that are working on autonomous vehicles.
It was just one of our stops on a tour through a part of the city that has become known as Robotics Row, not far from our temporary HQ2 in Pittsburgh. In half a day, I saw at least 20 different robots, capable of everything from defusing bombs to monitoring inventory at grocery stores. Along with the hoards of driverless cars out for testing on city streets, these robots and the companies that build them are at the heart of Pittsburgh’s new economy.
These high-tech research facilities are housed within old warehouses and distribution centers, some of which date back more than a century. The technological innovations form a dichotomy with the rocky sidewalks and ever-present potholes we dodged between stops, an example of the unique moment Pittsburgh finds itself in as the tech industry matures and the city escapes from decades of distress.
My tour guide for this trip was Jackie Erickson, a powerhouse in the industry who ran a regional office for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey before diving into the world of robotics. She was actually credited with coming up with the term Robotics Row, a nickname that has stuck as the region’s robotics companies gain global prowess.
While many of the companies I spoke with had only been around for a couple of years, the confluence of events that led to the rise of the city’s robotics industry began long ago. Almost every one had some sort of connection to Carnegie Mellon University. Its robotics program dates all the way back in 1979, kickstarted by a major investment from electrical giant Westinghouse and fueled by work of robotics pioneer William “Red” Whittaker and others.
Institutions like the National Robotics Engineering Center spun out or nurtured many of today’s robotics startups, and influxes of federal funding helped continue the momentum.
“Once you pull this all together, these small, little things come together to make one big awesome thing,” said Erickson.
It’s hard to think about robotics without considering the impact they could have on humans. A few of these machines have the potential to disrupt humans jobs. Tension over displacement looms over Pittsburgh, both from the perspective of rising home prices that come with the burgeoning tech boom, and the threat of autonomous and robotic technology. Pittsburgh’s robotics industry will have to keep in mind the city’s working-class history as it continues to advance the range of things its machines can do.
Technology always presents a disruption problem, but the leaders of these companies say building robots takes advantage of the city’s manufacturing DNA and talent, while moving that industry into the next generation.
“You have the manufacturing part, then you have the universities, and then you have the industrial knowhow. If you look at the intersection of that Venn diagram, that pretty much defines Pittsburgh,” said Jorgen Pedersen, president of RE2 Robotics, the first stop on our tour.
RE2 develops robotic arms and robots capable of intricate hand movements. The 20,000-square-foot office is home to about 45 people, and it includes a machine shop where the company manufactures its own parts. Pedersen says his robots perform “those dirty, dull and dangerous tasks, where you still need the human intellect to perform the work, but it’s dangerous work.” Examples of applications for the technology include bomb disposal, handling hazardous waste, search and rescue, law enforcement and more.
But the most interesting thing RE2 is working on has to be a flight simulator for autonomous piloting.
I wasn’t allowed to see the “innards” of the large white structure that houses the simulator and sports the seal of the Air Force Research Laboratory, but Pedersen tells me that it can be configured for any type of plane. So far, they’ve made progress once the plane is at cruising altitude, but there is still work to do on take off and landing. No major alterations can be made to the cockpit, other than taking out the pilot seat, so everything RE2 builds for autonomous flying has to fit in the existing layout.
“You can’t mess with anything because you have to be able to turn it into a manned aircraft,” Pedersen said.
Stop number two was HEBI. Like RE2, HEBI spun out of Carnegie Mellon University. The company started selling products in 2016, and eight employees share the 2,500-square-foot space just a couple blocks down from RE2 with the robots. Though right now the company is focused on the research and academic markets, offering both custom options and the hardware and software to build robots opens HEBI up to work with medical, industrial and other companies down the road.
“It can take a long time to build a custom robot,” Raida tells me as I carefully walk around the office trying not to step on any robots. “We take what might take months or years, and the objective is to get it to the point where they can do it in a weekend.”
Just across the street, the next stop on our tour was less flashy but no less important. Edge Case Research develops safety cases for robotics, Internet of Things and automated vehicle companies. Another company with Carnegie Mellon connections — co-founder and Chief Technologist Philip Koopman is a CMU professor — Edge Case mostly works with military groups. It has 30 clients, about a dozen employees and will soon move into a larger office in Pittsburgh.
Edge Case’s job is to serve as an independent third-party tester that makes sure companies have thought of everything that could go wrong with their robots or autonomous vehicles.
“So you’ve got a robot, tell us how are you going to use it,” Koopman said. “Let’s look at the environment and did you think about this, or this, or this, or this? Our customers are in charge of making these things work. “We are in charge of making sure they didn’t forget about something, and we’re very creative at that.”
The rise of Robotics Row is as much about real estate as it is tech. A lot of these companies need big open spaces for research, development and testing. Pittsburgh’s stock of old mills and factories provide ample opportunities for these companies to find the space they need.
The buildings I saw on the tour were once a railroad car manufacturing center, a chocolate factory, an ice distribution facility and a cigar factory. And these spaces are right in the heart of the city and some of its most desirable neighborhoods, rather than in suburban industrial parks.
The Regional Industrial Development Corp. had a lot to do with that. RIDC is a 63-year-old company that develops manufacturing, industrial and research and development space throughout the area. Don Smith, president of the company and another CMU alum, and Senior Vice President Tim White met me at a new R&D facility the company is building called Tech Forge. Just a couple blocks away from our other robotics stops, the building will be home to the automation division of construction machinery maker Caterpillar.
White and his team have saved and reused countless old buildings, even though doing that can be more expensive and difficult. Companies want those big open spaces for R&D, and keeping past structures guarantees that at least some remnant of Pittsburgh history remains even as the city remakes itself yet again.
“Pittsburgh is a proud place,” Smith said. “We have a proud past. We were the place that made things and still are. And so people are very proud of that and very attached to that. You hear a lot of words like gritty and authentic and real. I think it’s because we preserved so much of the past and made the future fit in with the past rather than replacing it.”
Our last stop was a few miles southwest to the Strip District, which is known for its assortment of great restaurants, markets and, lately, a cavalcade of autonomous Uber and Argo AI cars driving the streets.
There we visit Bossa Nova Robotics, which builds robots for the retail industry. Bossa Nova’s most notable partnership is with Walmart, where it has delivered at least 50 of its six-foot tall robots lined with cameras to several stores. They patrol the aisles of stores checking to make sure items are well stocked and prices are in the right places.
Co-founded by Sarjoun Skaff, who was born in Lebanon and earned a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, the company has doubled its staff in the last year, and expanded its office space. The company started by building toy robots, but later shifted to retail. Just a block or so from its office, Bossa Nova has a small testing facility where it has mockups of grocery store aisles, complete with items like canned soups.
This technology was the closest thing we saw to a potential disruptive force to workers. But Skaff says the company aims to build robots that can intermingle with human customers, while also supporting human workers, rather than replacing them.
“All it’s trying to do is tell them where the problems are so they can go and fix them, and by fixing them everything goes in the right direction,” Skaff said.
Though Carnegie Mellon and other institutions have been laying the groundwork for robotics development for decades, most of the companies I saw are only a couple of years old still figuring out their identities. As the technology evolves, it will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh continues to develop as a robotics hub. Smith of RIDC, which has built facilities for many of these robotics companies, thinks it will.
“The technology has matured to where it’s market ready, and Pittsburgh has such deep experience going back 35 years in robotics, computer science and engineering that the ingredients were all here, and now the markets have all caught up to the technology whizbang. We’ve always been good at the whizbang.”