The Private Sector: All signs point to Roboburgh

As global conference on robotics comes calling, Pittsburgh has much to showcase

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Martha Rial Post-Gazette
William Whittaker with Groundhog, a new subterranean robot used for mapping old mines that was developed at the Field Robotics Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Whittaker is the Fredkin research professor and director of Field Robotics Center.
Click photo for larger image.

When The Wall Street Journal dubbed Pittsburgh "Robo-burgh" in a November 1999 article identifying the nation's top 10 hotbeds of technology, the collective initial reaction from the region was excitement and pride. As with most fledgling industries, however, a strategic plan to channel that excitement into activities that could deliver clear returns for the robotics industry and the region as a whole was not in place.

Luckily, that has changed. As an industry observer and analyst of trends, I have witnessed several of the region's leading robotics industry organizations, experts and companies make significant strides over the past six years. Now, their efforts have paid off -- quietly and not so quietly -- but handsomely.

For example, Pittsburgh-based companies such as Applied Perception Inc. and RE2 Inc. are helping pioneer the development of the Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems, an emerging industry standard that will facilitate the interoperability of components used to build robots of all kinds. The development of this standard is being shepherded by SAE International, the premier society dedicated to advancing mobility engineering worldwide, also headquartered in Pittsburgh.

Recently, two regional robotics startups were acquired by large, publicly traded companies that recognized the tremendous market potential of their robotic technologies. Assistware Technologies was purchased by Natick, Mass.-based Cognex Inc., and Coroware Labs was acquired by Innova Holdings. What is most significant -- and unusual -- about these acquisitions is that both companies chose to retain the Pittsburgh facilities they purchased rather than relocate them to their existing headquarters.

Why? Talent -- pure and simple. Pittsburgh's engineering and industrial heritage laid a strong foundation for the city's current leadership position in robotics expertise. Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute offers the only Ph.D. degree in robotics in the world. Luckily for the region, visionary industrialists and investors realize that and are starting to take advantage of it.

In addition, Pittsburgh is home to The National Center for Defense Robotics, the only organization of its type that provides companies access to federal funding to conduct defense robotics research for military applications, including unmanned systems through a competitive white paper and full proposal submission process. And, yes, the city's tremendous quality of life and the opportunity to be part of sustained robotic breakthroughs keeps them here.

Two other significantly higher profile milestones have further positioned Pittsburgh to become the global leading center of excellence in robotics. CMU professor Red Whittaker's Red Team participated in the 2004 and 2005 DARPA Grand Challenges, two field tests intended to accelerate research and development in autonomous ground vehicles that will help save American lives on the battlefield. The Grand Challenge brings together individuals and organizations from industry, research and development, government, the armed services, academia, students, backyard inventors and automotive enthusiasts in the pursuit of a technological challenge.

The 2004 Grand Challenge field test of autonomous ground vehicles ran from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev., and offered a $1 million prize. From the qualifying round at the California Speedway, 15 finalists, including the Red Team, emerged to attempt the Grand Challenge. However, the prize went unclaimed as no vehicles were able to complete the difficult desert route. In 2005, a total of five teams completed the Grand Challenge course, which was 132 miles over desert terrain; the Red Team fielded two vehicles in the race and claimed second and third place. National and international media converged on both events, covering the Red Team's enthusiasm, dedication and top-notch finishes.

These collective strengths and events are why RoboticsTrends chose Pittsburgh as the site for Robobusiness 2006, which will take place in Pittsburgh today and tomorrow.

This international conference, the only one of its kind devoted to the business of robotics, will host industry analysts, venture capitalists, military leaders, health-care providers and robotics companies from around the globe, offering many of them their first glance at southwestern Pennsylvania.

In my opinion, Pittsburgh is well on its way to delivering on The Wall Street Journal's prediction. As residents of the region, you should be aware of the innovations and progress your robotics industry has forged. More importantly, you should be proud of it and take the opportunity, as the roboticists of the world descend on Pittsburgh, to let anyone who will listen know.

Dan Kara is president of Robotics Trends, a media firm serving the robotics technology marketplace. Its mission is to be the focal point for information exchange, market intelligence and events for these expanding markets.


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