Robot Revolution Drives Pittsburgh Revival
The American city of Pittsburgh changed forever when the steel industry it became famous for collapsed.
Over 30 years later, it has managed to reinvent itself. Its population is now growing, and the city's unemployment rate, which touched 17.1% in 1983, is below the national average at 6.2%. In large part that reinvention has been driven by a high-tech revolution. Companies like Google and Apple have outposts there, attracted to the pools of talent in engineering, healthcare, advanced manufacturing and in particular, a cutting-edge robotics scene.
Some of the biggest players in that field work at the city's Carnegie Mellon University. We spent a day at its Robotics Institute filming some of the projects the scientists are working on. Director Matt Mason said: "Pittsburgh has such a rich history, and everybody knows that it was the centre of steel production for a long time and they know the story of when we lost a lot of those jobs in steel and what a tragedy it was for this city. There's been this amazing comeback, and it's wonderful to be part of that, and really a great statement about the breadth of robotics and the ability of robotics to effect all parts of our lives."
There are just a handful of university and research teams across the world working on robots that look and move like snakes, and Carnegie Mellon is one of them. In the basement labs, masters student Ellen Kappo showed us how the complex 16 joint machine, with a camera and light mounted on one end, could climb up legs, tree limbs, and slither along the floor.
She said: "Inspection is probably the biggest application. There's been a lot of interest in snakebot inspecting piping systems, nuclear applications, sewer and gas lines work ... There aren't a lot of conventional robots or machines that can get in to those spaces."
Leader of the snake robot team, Professor Howie Choset, explained that the device had already been used in miniature in medical procedures. He said: "In medicine, the ability to reduce pain, reduce costs and bring people back to their daily lives more quickly because of an enhanced minimally invasive surgical tool, that's just profound. There are going to be procedures which in the past would have gutted a patient, not just open surgery but really gutted them, that may one day be an office visit."
Chimp is also a robot that could have a profound impact on our world. It was developed in the aftermath of the Fukishima nuclear disaster as an answer to the problem of not being able to send humans in to such dangerous circumstances without huge risk to their health. Chimp has strength, balance and basic manipulation skills, and could one day be used to shut down damaged plants.
The robot is housed in Carnegie's top-secret National Robotic Engineering Centre. It is where the university applies its skills to industry and government enterprise, engineering robots to solve the big problems facing the private and public sectors. We have to promise not to film anything other than Chimp because the work there is so commercially sensitive.
Engineering Center director Dr Anthony Stenz said: "My goal is to develop robots that could do work that is dull dirty and dangerous, and relieve people of those jobs, and put them in jobs where they control the robots, they repair the robots, they collaborate with the robots."
Collaboration is the key with Cobot, a robot that has been programmed to roam the corridors unaided, picking up mail, fetching coffee and water for people. It looks like an iPad on a stick, with no arms. But it "knows" its own limitations, and when it gets to a lift, or a sink, or a door, it will ask humans nearby for help.
PhD student Joydeep Biswas said: "That's the idea of symbiotic autonomy, that by asking humans for help with a simple task, the robot can do a wide variety of things which it couldn’t have done on its own."
When he revealed his budget just a few weeks ago, President Barack Obama said the high tech sector is crucial to job creation and keeping America competitive. There are plenty of other areas across the country vying for their place in the list of top tech cities. But the academics at Carnegie certainly have ambition, working on projects like pilotless helicopters, autonomous helicopters and driverless Cadilacs. Matt Mason said: There's so much going on here.
"Computer vision these days is doing things that we only used to dream about, and the ability to recognise objects and do scene recognition has taken off tremendously ... it's a very long list."