Article Published: December 19, 2016
Article Published: December 19, 2016
It’s no great surprise any longer that our region has become known as “Roboburgh,” a moniker assigned to this area more than a decade ago. What may come as a shock, though, are the sheer number of robotics-related firms that have begun and grown here, along with the rising level of national and international attention those enterprises have attracted.
From the online news service Politico to a feature anchored by Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes,” and a flurry of stories in between, Pittsburgh has indeed lived up to—and exceeded—its Roboburgh reputation. Employment by Pittsburgh-area robotics firms has jumped from 700 to 2,200 people in the five years since President Barack Obama announced the National Robotics Initiative (NRI) at the National Robotics Engineering Center, a technology transfer organization that designs, develops and tests robotic systems and vehicles for industrial and government clients.
The primary driver behind all of this, as you might have guessed, stems from the minds feverishly working at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU)—particularly within its Robotics Institute, a worldwide hub of robotics research.
“In the last 35 years, Carnegie Mellon has become the world leader in robotics technology,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle at a recent event. But robotics in Pittsburgh is about much more than Carnegie Mellon, he added, noting robotics research is now under way at the University of Pittsburgh. Moreover, dozens of robotics firms now flourish in southwestern Pennsylvania.
The Robotics Institute at CMU established the world’s first robotics PhD program, with subsequent graduates taking on roles ranging from faculty in top universities to designing and controlling Mars rovers. CMU has steadily grown and expanded its robotics programs of study to all levels of education—from masters programs and an undergraduate minor for Carnegie Mellon students down to the K-12 level, where workshops and summer classes inspire and educate the next generation of roboticists.
But let’s not forget the many other individuals and organizations that work just as diligently to support and promote the robotics industry locally.
The Regional Industrial Development Corporation (RIDC) has a new building currently under construction in Lawrenceville called Tech Forge, designed to accommodate emerging robotics companies with offices, research and development, manufacturing, and even open space to conduct testing of new technologies and applications. Tech Forge even has its first tenant, Caterpillar, signed and ready to move in to the 65,000-square-foot facility that could comfortably handle up to four tenants.
“Tech Forge is being built because robotics is doing so well in this region,” explained Don Smith, RIDC Executive Director. “The idea is to get companies up and running, so that they can move on as they grow. We have enough inventory of various-sized spaces and flexible leases in the region to help these companies as they expand.
“The pipeline is really taking off, and we want to make sure the region can accommodate it,” Smith added. “The name of the game in tech is talent. These talented people need spaces to handle their ideas as they become actual products and processes. We are creating those spaces, great places with wonderful amenities, where people want to work.”
Craig Waller, an attorney with the Downtown-based The Webb Law Firm, speaks for the importance of robotics entrepreneurs convinced they have the next big idea to also respect the need for prudence and sound business practices surrounding intellectual property.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What is really new about what you’re doing, so that it can be developed, protected and sold?’” said Waller. “One example we had recently was, we went into a company, saw that their technology was really cool, and agreed to help conceive IP protections that would attract investors in an effort to get it to market while securing the interests of the people behind it.
“The founder of this company told us to look around, see what we liked, and to tell him what we thought. We did just that and told him we thought protections could also be available in other vertical markets, and asked if he was willing to adapt it, which he did. That wasn’t an easy decision for him, but the additional protections served him well and he has been one of the more successful clients we’ve worked with.”
What follows are brief snapshots of some of the robotics companies boosting our region’s Roboburgh chops. Some have been around a while, others are still at the fledgling stage, but all are doing great work in robotics.
“We take industrial-handling vehicles and make them autonomous — and we were doing it long before it was cool,” said Jeff Christensen, Vice President of Products and Services for Findlay Township-based Seegrid, which has been doing just that since 2003. “We have 400,000 accident-free miles clocked on Seegrid vehicles, and we’re proud of that.”
Driverless Seegrid vehicles move goods and materials in and around large production or storage spaces. This may sound deceptively like the driverless cars that have been attracting attention to Pittsburgh of late, but the Seegrid approach has one critical—and distinctive—difference.
“Our perception of how we see the world is different,” said Christensen. “Seegrid uses multiple cameras on its vehicles to mimic human binocular vision, seeing things in stereo like a human pair of eyes. Our brain reconciles the two vision inputs for depth perception. Our cameras do the same thing to tell when something is there in three-dimensional space. With 10 cameras on a Seegrid vehicle, it provides an ‘evidence of occupancy,’ meaning it can tell when something’s there taking up space. Other providers don’t do this. They use lasers to see where a driverless vehicle may be in space. The Seegrid approach is 100 times more delineated than lasers, though.”
A recent software addition, Seegrid Supervisor, helps to coordinate the movement, activity, and process inherent in using a fleet of autonomous vehicles in a single environment. A Whirlpool manufacturing facility in Ohio, for instance, produces 20,000 washing machines a day. Through its web-based application, Seegrid manages 50 trucks there that safely and efficiently move those products as designed.
Each Seegrid vehicle—or “tugger”—travels through a facility once, collecting data to create a baseline picture of the size, scope, and shape of the space where it will be functioning. It can then make continuous calculations to adapt to any environmental changes on subsequent passes through that space, with each calculation taking about a third of a second.
Inspired by the Latin “capio sensus”—or, “to understand the senses”—CapSen Robotics uses 3-D computer vision to solve complex automation challenges for manufacturers and supply chain providers.
A two-year-old MIT spinoff, CapSen specializes in object recognition in clutter, according to CEO Jared Glover. “Robotics can be found now in factories and warehouses, of course, but we want to expand applications for robotics through powerful recognition capabilities. Current recognition programs require customization, meaning you need a system integrator to modify each task. CapSen is working to solve that problem by building a more generic computer vision system to help robots understand what they see.”
In the software still under development at the Oakland-based company, when objects are placed in a pile or a bin in front of a robot, the CapSen Vision software can see precisely where each object is and tell the robot how to extract or manipulate them as programmed.
A robot-vision company like CapSen provides software and cameras to work with systems integrators who combine all pieces, equipment, specifications and installation practices for end-users. The CapSen piece would represent one component of a larger installation.
“We have a number of prototypes that are pretty far along, and we plan on releasing our first product next spring” Glover explained. “We’re not looking to be a unicorn that gets sold to the highest bidder. We want to build a company in Pittsburgh for the long term. We’ve made progress on some very hard computer vision problems. There’s still a lot of work to be done, pieces to be connected, but that’s where we see ourselves coming in, to be a leader in pushing the technology forward.”
Snakes have gotten a bum rap, but the team at HEBI Robotics is working to change that. Using modular technology derived from snake robotics developed initially in the CMU Biorobotics Lab, HEBI (the Japanese word for snake) creates Lego-like building blocks to create custom robots.
“We’ve leveraged years of development and experience, and repackaged the technology found in snake robots to create our X-Series module, a smart actuator that can be used to create custom robots.” noted Bob Raida, VP of Business Development & Operations for the Bloomfield-based company, founded in 2014.
The X-Series—a powerful robotic actuator that looks like a metallic tape dispenser—allows engineers, researchers, and industrial integrators to quickly and easily create world-class custom robots of any configuration. These actuators are packed with sensors that enable position, velocity, and sensitive torque control, as well as three-axis inertial measurement.
Each module, or actuator, integrates a brushless motor, gear train, spring, encoders, and control electronics into a compact package designed to function as a full-featured robotic component as opposed to a simple motor. The HEBI modules can be used in everything from wheeled robots to multi-degree-of-freedom collaborative robotic arms. Since they can sense and respond to force, they are safe to be used by and near humans, fitting them into a new class of robotics called “collaborative robots.”
“What differentiates HEBI from other collaborative robot solutions is that our modules can be used to create robots that fit the application, where existing solutions take a one-size-fits-all approach that usually requires the application to be modified to fit the robot,” said Raida. While our modules are one-of-a-kind, they are integrated with commonly used technologies and hardware to create custom robots. This is one of the ways we help people without robotics training or knowledge put our technology to use easily. We want to give people a higher jumping-off point.”
IAM Robotics: The Right Pick
Founded in 2012, with all founders sharing a background at CMU, IAM Robotics offers a fresh take on wholesale warehouse bin picking. Led by CEO Tom Galluzzo, IAM brings technological and economic advantages to wholesale enterprises that need to efficiently manage sprawling warehouse facilities serving multiple retail customers.
“The economics of what our robots do are the most compelling feature,” Galluzzo said. “E-commerce is still growing exponentially, outpacing demand, and there’s a labor shortage of 1 million stock workers in the U.S. predicted by 2020. Demand is being driven by faster delivery expectations from consumers.
“Human warehouse workers have a lot of turnover, usually within nine months. It’s physically demanding, tedious work. If there’s an aging population working in these jobs, and you have younger workers who don’t want to do this, who’s left? Automation is the answer,” he said.
Instead of turning to a heavy automation solution—sort of like building a giant vending machine—IAM has built a robotic infrastructure to do the labor of picking specific items from warehouse shelves and assembling customized packages for shipping to retailers.
Under the IAM model, a “Flash” robot scans the barcode of an item, say a can of suntan lotion. Flash also weighs the product and takes a picture of it to create a visual memory. The customer keeps Flash onsite, to scan the product again if its appearance or size changes. This enables more accurate and fast product delivery from shelf to bin, Galluzzo explained. Proprietary “SwiftLink” software connects orders to the Flash robot from the shipping department.
Rochester Drug Corporation in upstate New York has been an early adopter of the IAM solution. “A person can do up to 600 picks an hour, our robot can do 1,100 picks an hour – nearly double. Also, it takes 10 times the number of people to pick items than to replenish them, so there’s significant cost-savings using our technology to pick.”