At the Pittsburgh Athletic Association Thursday night, tables lined the room’s perimeter with computer screens flashing color displays, peregrine lander and rover models and panels of sound, light and distance sensors.
More than 100 locals attended Pittsburgh Presents Robotics, an event hosted by Cohen & Grigsby, P.C. and Pittsburgh Entrepreneurs Forum. The occasion featured a panel of 11 robotic companies and networking event.
As attendees wandered the venue before the panel, vegetable skewers and pudding cups in hand, local robotic companies shared information about their goals, innovations and contributions — all of which have made Pittsburgh a leading presence in the robotics industry.
Jay Douglass, head of Carnegie Mellon University’s Advanced Robotics Manufacturing Institute, was one of five panelists at the event Thursday. He countered the sci-fi film notion that robots are here to take blue-collar jobs.
“We’re going to work on bringing robotics back to factories in order to compete against offshore industries,” Douglass said. “We don’t want to replace our workers — we want to get them involved in new and different ways.”
Jackie Erickson, a panelist from the Pittsburgh Robotics Network — a volunteer organization representing more than 65 robotics companies in Pittsburgh — spoke to attendees about PNF’s part in company promotion, funding and growth. Her company is focused on attracting and fostering new robotic talent in Pittsburgh.
According to a survey PRN conducted in 2013, Pittsburgh has generated 19 new businesses since 2011 that provide robotics solutions in industries ranging from agriculture to defense to health care and more.
Since former President Barack Obama announced the National Robotics Initiative in 2011 at the school’s National Robotics Engineering Center, employment by Pittsburgh-area robotics firms has jumped from 700 to 2200 people. CMU, which is ranked nationally for its robotics program, has received more than $15 million from the NRI.
“It’s important for companies to know that they can make their voices heard,” Erickson said. “While Carnegie Mellon-affiliated programs are amazing at what they do, other companies need a place to find their own voice for what they do, and we help them find that.”
Beyond the panel, company representatives had the chance to pitch their company’s robotic endeavours to people passing by their station. Astrobotics founder John Thornton explained how his company uses lunar delivery to appeal to other countries working to send things to the moon. The project, called “MoonMail,” sends keepsakes to the moon — photos, mementos, letters and notes — and is marketed as the first “commercial trip to the moon,” on the company’s website.
“We’re building a DHL-like [shipping] service to the moon,” Thornton said. “We’ve already gotten 10 deals from six different nations. These nations are sending us rovers and landers in order to make the deliveries possible.”
While numerous attendees at the affair were from CMU and Pittsburgh robotic companies and start-ups, Pitt faculty and students, such as Joshua Tarlo, a first-year mechanical engineering major, are also exploring new engineering developments on campus.
As a member of Pitt’s Robotics and Automation Society — a student group that works on different robotics projects on campus — Tarlo’s team is currently building a life-size robotic panther. The panther will eventually be on display in the Benedum Hall lobby and double as a floor map of the entire building.
Currently, the RAS is working on five robotics projects, including the Micro Mouse, a robotic mouse that will navigate a maze.
The University also has an organization called Design Hub, a group dedicated to student innovations and startup procedures. Design Hub provides students with brainstorming sessions, educational workshops, hands-on projects and community outreach opportunities.
“There is a large amount of networking events available for the students to partake in and gain valuable connections,” he said. “In addition, the professors and faculty are excellent connections to have in your professional network.”
The engineering department at Pitt offers a wide variety of classes for robotics exposure and project inspiration — including a course called The Art of Making for upperclassmen and second semester first-year students that gives them an opportunity to design projects early in their undergraduate career.
“Starting early on, students [have the opportunity to] easily jump into hands-on learning and immerse themselves in electronics, coding and foster a love of robotics and ‘making’ in general,” Gilmour said.