Near Earth's sensor suite for full-size cargo helicopters

More than 15 years ago, The Wall Street Journal dubbed Pittsburgh as “Roboburgh,” a tribute to the rapid growth in robotics research and development, much of which was emanating from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). That R&D environment has since created a breeding ground for robotics startups.

U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle, co-founder and co-chair of the House Robotics Caucus, is determined to secure additional federal funding to support local research and development initiatives. “We have the talent and the companies,” he says. “Our challenge is to spur more investment so that we have capital flowing into the region.”

To accomplish that, he believes Pittsburgh’s story needs to be consistently shared in a way that engages all stakeholders. “We have a lot of exciting things in the pipeline,” he says. “Now we need to create a buzz, and attract more capital.”

U.S. Congressman Mike Doyle spends time with Dr. Kevin Dowling, CEO, Real Earth.

Recently, Congressman Doyle toured three of Pittsburgh’s fast-rising robotics companies: Real Earth, Near Earth Autonomy and HEBI Robotics. Executives of each company demonstrated how their robotics technology is improving safety and increasing productivity across industries.

The three companies are just a few of the “hidden treasures” housed in the relatively non-descript Design Center on Baum Blvd. In a much larger, but similar way, Pittsburgh’s standing as a robotics powerhouse also remains hidden, not by a building façade, but by the stubborn misconception held by some that Pittsburgh is stuck in a bygone, steel-industry era.

According to Congressman Doyle, eliminating the myths is the first step to bringing broad regional recognition to Pittsburgh’s leadership in the field of robotics. What are those myths?

Myth #1: Pittsburgh will prosper once overseas jobs return to the City.

Congressman Doyle counters that claim, encouraging residents to embrace Pittsburgh’s newer identity as a center of technology. “There may be some nostalgia related our past, but Pittsburgh is no longer a one-horse town. We have always been innovators, and we have done a good job of diversifying. We will never again go down on the back of a single industry.”

Howie Choset, Ph.D. and co-founder of HEBI Robotics, adds. “We want jobs in America to be synonymous with innovation and leadership, and we can do that by creating an innovating ecosystem.”

Myth #2: Robots will replace the workforce.

“On the contrary,” offers Congressman Doyle. “The local robotics industry will actually create a high volume of better-paying jobs.” There are efforts in Pittsburgh, he explains, to educate residents on opportunities that will require 24 months of training. “These jobs,” he adds, “will provide good, family-sustaining wages here in Pittsburgh.”

“Automation will never be the answer for every job,” says Dr. Choset, “but robots will make it possible for workers to increase productivity by as much as two or threefold. Giving small and mid-size companies the tools to affordably build robots for their daily operations,” he adds, “will level the playing field and make those companies more competitive.”

Myth #3: Robots only benefit manufacturing.

Kevin Dowling, Ph.D. and CEO of Real Earth, notes, “Robots have typically been associated with manufacturing and assembly lines. Now,” he adds, “robots are moving into the field, above ground, below ground and into space. A number of Fortune 500 companies are setting up shop in Pittsburgh to take advantage of our robotics framework.” He cites Uber, Bosch and Caterpillar among those companies.

Congressman Doyle agrees, “The potential applications are enough to boggle the mind.”

Myth #4: Robotics is the business of scientists.

Congressman Doyle disagrees. “Employees don’t need a PhD to engage in the industry,” he notes. He points to the modular robotics technology evolving at HEBI as an illustration. Programming that previously required a PhD can now be accomplished by the average worker.

Sanjiv Singh, PhD, CEO and Chief Scientist at Near Earth Autonomy, expands. “We already have a critical mass of technical talent; now we need to build out a network of people to fill non-technical support jobs, such as finance, marketing and sales. That,” he says, “is the missing layer.”

Dr. Sanjiv Singh explains Near Earth Autonomy's aerial robotic technology to U.S. Congressman Doyle
Dr. Sanjiv Singh explains Near Earth Autonomy’s aerial robotics technology to U.S. Congressman Doyle.
Dr. Sanjiv Singh explains Near Earth Autonomy’s aerial robotics technology to U.S. Congressman Doyle.

Myth #5: Robots Are Still in the Future

“We don’t need five more years,” explains Dr. Singh. “We are relevant today.” He notes that a greater number of traditional companies are finding ways to affordably employ robots.

“Every year,” adds Dr. Dowling, “we see faster, better, cheaper.”

Current Applications

Already, robots are going where workers cannot, and they are absorbing some of the most dangerous and unappealing jobs.

Real Earth’s ground level and underground mapping technology can be used by first responders to gain a clear view before they step into a dangerous environment. The company’s sensor-driven robots rely on RobotEye, a one-of-a-kind platform that delivers unmatched speed and precision. Real Earth can send robots into sewer systems to map out leaks, to the moon to map crevices and into dangerous locations, such as nuclear environments and volcanoes. Recently, the company was awarded first place in Microsoft’s Indoor Localization Competition, which was held in Vienna, Austria. The recognition is further validation of the company’s ability to provide best-in-class, real-time mapping and localization solutions.

Near Earth Autonomy uses sensor technology to navigate its aerial autonomous vehicles. The company’s prototype helicopter can be controlled from up to six miles away, using nothing more than an iPad. A laser scanner gathers hundreds of thousands of images per second, enabling the vehicle to build in real time a map of the surrounding geography. With this information, the helicopter can verify the safety of its designated landing spot, and modify its trajectory as needed to select a safer alternative landing spot. Because the helicopter can safely land in a white out and other degraded environments, it provides an ideal tool for military personnel and first responders. The company’s technology is also gaining traction in commercial environments, where it provides an alternative for expensive and dangerous jobs, such as bridge, power line and mine inspections.

HEBI Robotics derived its name from the Japanese word for ‘snake,’ a shout out to the company’s first claim to fame, a robot that maneuvered with a snake-like agility. HEBI’s vision is to improve the very rigid movements typically characteristic of robots.”We believe,” says Dr. Choset, “that we are on the cusp of a revolution that will change the paradigm of how robots are built, and we’re doing this by integrating low-cost, high-performance robotic modules.”

Robotics Demonstration at HEBI Robotics
U.S. Congressman Doyle looks on as David Rollinson demonstrates HEBI’s modular robotics technology.
U.S. Congressman Doyle looks on as David Rollinson demonstrates HEBI’s modular robotics technology.

Why Pittsburgh

Dr. Dowling, a graduate of CMU, returned to Pittsburgh after living a number of years in Boston. The draw, he says, was the cluster of small robotics companies and large R&D opportunities. “The companies are here,” he notes, “but most are still under the radar.”

Dr. Singh has been part of the Pittsburgh robotics scene for 30 years. “Pittsburgh’s been good to us, and now Kevin [Dr. Dowling] and I are thinking of what we can do for the region. We hope to see Baum Blvd., between CMU and Pitt, become an avenue of high-tech companies.”

I love to write about the manufacturing, tech, and startup sectors; there are great stories to tell, especially in Pittsburgh.

In the past year, I have become a spokesperson on the issue of domestic violence: publishing a book, joining the board of Break the Silence Against Domestic Violence; and speaking on occasion to high school and college students, as well as community groups. A passion fulfilled!