August 10, 2017      

Pittsburgh’s position as one of the top robotics research hubs in the U.S. has set it up to be a world leader in this industry. Pittsburgh is near the head of the pack, trailing only Boston but ahead of Silicon Valley and other robotics hotbeds such as Tokyo and Seoul, according to Gizmodo.

In 1999, when The Wall Street Journal bestowed the moniker of “Roboburgh” on Pittsburgh, some people may have wondered how a place that was once the “steel city” earned such a futuristic title. But Pittsburgh has only accelerated its drive to be on the cutting edge since then and is proving that it has what it takes to compete in the robotics big league.

What is it about Pittsburgh that allows it to capture attention — and investment dollars — from robotics and artificial intelligence giants such as Uber Technologies, Argo AI, Bosch, Disney Research, and Delphi, to name a few?

It’s a trifecta of strengths, as I see it. While this is an oversimplification, it’s one way to present the case for landing — or expanding — a robotics business in Pittsburgh. Here are three areas that, in my opinion, help define this Pennsylvania city’s unique value proposition for robotics.

  • Talent
  • R&D horsepower + industry-advancing partnerships
  • Conventional infrastructure

CMU, local schools build talent

One of the top-ranked institutions producing the next generation of roboticists in the U.S. is Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), which is in the good company, along with the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley. CMU and robotics are inseparable, and the university is a major reason why Pittsburgh is a robotics heavyweight.

In short, robotics intelligence starts in Pittsburgh at CMU, and this intelligence provides the push for industry to explore the still untapped potential of automation.

In 1979, the CMU Robotics Institute was established to realize this robotics potential to benefit both industry and society. Offering the world’s first doctoral program in robotics, the institute has 64 faculty members and 108 Ph.D. and 265 master’s students from around the world.

Pittsburgh's CMU conducts AI and mobile robotics research.

CHIMP, a four-limbed, intelligent mobile platform, was designed and built at the National Robotics Engineering Center, a part of CMU’s Robotics Institute. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

The institute has produced numerous robotics entrepreneurs. Chris Urmson is one. The former head of Google’s self-driving car program, he’s now working with Sterling Anderson, the former director of Tesla Autopilot, on his own self-driving car company. Aurora Innovation has put down roots in Pittsburgh alongside operations in Palo Alto, Calif.

Others notables include Mark Maimone, one of the leads piloting NASA’s Curiosity on Mars project, and William “Red” Whittaker, who is known as the father of Robotics Institute and founder of the discipline of field robotics.

CMU isn’t the only game changer for Pittsburgh. Also contributing to the region’s success in robotics — plus complementary disciplines such as AI, computer science, and engineering — is the University of Pittsburgh. The university is widely recognized for medicine and biotech, but it is also a leader in engineering education.

In addition, there are 33 other regional colleges and universities, not to mention nearby Penn State University and West Virginia University. Collectively, they have bestowed 1,676 computer science degrees, 386 robotics and mechatronics degrees, and 327 AI degrees annually. These institutions have also produced 1,672 computer engineering degrees, 2,688 mechanical engineering degrees, and 2,430 electrical/electronics/communications engineering degrees.

Consultants concur that talent remains a top consideration when it comes to business investment and site location decisions. The Pittsburgh region possesses a decided edge, with no shortage of higher ed institutions to keep the talent pool brimming. Case in point: With employment in the region at 3,150 for mechanical engineers and 2,000 for electrical engineers, these concentrations are 35% and 29% above the U.S. average, respectively.

R&D and public-private partnerships advance the industry

Robust research and development activity, coupled with strategic partnerships, support the growing use of automation in industries including agriculture, defense, healthcare, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and warehousing.

CMU’s Robotics Institute is the world’s largest robotics R&D organization. The institute’s footprint is in excess of 200,000 square feet, plus the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) in the neighborhood of Lawrenceville and “Robot City,” a field-testing site in Pittsburgh’s Hazelwood neighborhood.

Pittsburgh's Robotics Institute tests HERB for an Oreo separation.

CMU’s Robotics Institute’s HERB, the “Home Exploring Robot Butler,” serves as a test bed for developing perception, navigation, manipulation, and interaction. HERB can do something many humans can’t resist doing: separating the two chocolate wafers of an Oreo cookie to reveal the cream filling. Credit: Carnegie Mellon University

NREC focuses on developing robotic technologies from concept to commercialization, with industry and government clients such as NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense working alongside manufacturers and startups. NREC is at the forefront in unmanned ground vehicle design, autonomy, sensing and perception, machine learning, machine vision, and operator assistance.

A recent addition to Pittsburgh’s high-tech scene is the Advanced Robotics for Manufacturing (ARM) Institute. It is a nationally recognized public-private partnership led by CMU and is intended to be the center of a new wave of manufacturing.

The ARM Institute is working to combine AI, autonomy, 3-D printing, and other emerging technologies to make industrial automation adaptable and more affordable for businesses, especially small and midsize enterprise. It’s supported by $80 million from the Defense Department, plus an additional $173 million from partner organizations.

Other key partnerships include the Pittsburgh Robotics Network; the Medical Robotics Tech Center; and accelerators and incubators such as Innovation Works, AlphaLab Gear, and Startbot.

Pittsburgh’s new Robotics Hub is an accelerator program plus a $20 million venture fund created by CMU’s NREC and GE Ventures, the investment arm of General Electric. The fund helps promising startups to bring their machines from lab to market with greater speed and ease.

Infrastructure keeps businesses humming

Pittsburgh has an advantage rooted in its 150-year history as a manufacturing hub. This runs the gamut from the spaces suited for turnkey robotics ventures to the wide network of suppliers and shops with the expertise to effectively engineer, manufacture, supply, and support the critical sensors, software, and components for creating custom robots.

“One thing you can really find in this town is incredible buildings and sites,” said CMU’s Whittaker in an interview last year with fDi (Foreign Direct Investment) magazine.” You can find acreage, which is so essential to the kind of technologies that matter in farming, mining, and driving … applications you just can’t do at a computer or in a cubicle.”

Pittsburgh robotics includes Seegrid

Seegrid is tackling autonomous 3D vision navigation. Global manufacturing and retail clients deploy its vision-guided industrial vehicles in their warehouses. Seegrid’s robotic forklifts are developed and manufactured in Pittsburgh. Credit: Seegrid

He also observed that “Pittsburgh is in an incredible corner of the world for making things. You can make just about anything in this town: electronics, precision mechanisms, sensors, software.”

When considering the machining and manufacturing that support the robotics industry, the numbers do the talking. The region is home to nearly 300 machine shops employing 4,000, creating an employment concentration that’s nearly twice the U.S. average.

And with 10,000 people employed at nearly 300 machinery manufacturing facilities, the region’s employment concentration is 15% above the U.S. average. Also worth noting is Pittsburgh’s entrepreneurial ecosystem — co-working spaces, incubators, and accelerators — which supports about one-third of the region’s robotics companies.

Pittsburgh-based companies serving the robotics industry include CapSen Robotics, Carnegie Robotics, Edge Case Research, HEBI Robotics, and Kaarta.

In Pittsburgh, robotics is much more than an academic research endeavor. It’s an enterprise that’s experiencing exponential growth, particularly with regard to autonomous vehicles. Automakers and other technology titans have looked to Pittsburgh for perfecting self-driving cars.

Robotics commercialization and investment underway here is stronger than ever and diverse, spanning industries and geography.

‘Robotics Row’ and beyond

The three-mile Strip District in downtown Pittsburgh is known as “Robotics Row” because of the approximately 20 robotics ventures that have set up shop there (as well as in neighboring Lawrenceville). These companies have already found more than 300,000 square feet of space suitable for their ventures, and there’s more to be had for others looking to land in Robotics Row.

While robotics startups tend to land closer to the Oakland neighborhood of the city where CMU and Pitt are located, they are not limited to that area. Across the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, such ventures dot the landscape — creating employment opportunities for recent graduates and attracting brilliant roboticists from around the world.

The time has come for building practical applications for robotics, AI, and driverless vehicles, and this commercial activity is allowing Roboburgh to really own its reputation. The region is looking ahead to a bright future as an automation leader.

If you’d like to learn more about locating or growing a robotics venture in Pittsburgh, I’ll be at RoboBusiness in Santa Clara, Calif. I’ll be part of the panel on “Growing the Robotics Landscape — Regional Comparisons” on Sept. 28, 2017. I’d be delighted to meet you there!