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Robots: Will they ever deliver on their promise?

Will robots ever deliver on their promise of an exciting new industry for Pittsburgh?

Sunday, February 13, 2000

By Rona Kobell, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The robotics industry in Pittsburgh has seen the future, and it's ... a small ship cleaner from Florida?

 
Todd Simonds, chairman of RedZone Robotics, poses with Rosie, one of his company's robots, which is used to dismantle nuclear reactors. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

Sound preposterous? The Navy thought so. When Dennis McGuire, president of UltraStrip Systems in Stuart, Fla., first talked about developing a hydraulic robot to strip paint from ships in 1991, the Navy laughed at him. Nobody was laughing last month when McGuire, his face red from sunburn, unloaded his M-2000 Robotic Hydro-blasting System at the National Robotics Engineering Consortium in Lawrenceville. With funding from NASA, Carnegie Mellon University scientists are upgrading his robot system, and local heavyweight RedZone Robotics will manufacture it for him.

McGuire is more than a customer. He is the realization of a 20-year-old dream -- that local companies can build and sell robots that will work.

On the surface, it appears robotics here has done just that. CMU boasts one of the world's few doctoral programs. In January, the Nomad robot built by CMU scientists discovered a meteorite in Antarctica. Adding to the fervor was a November Wall Street Journal article that dubbed Pittsburgh "Roboburgh" and put it on the list of the 13 hottest tech regions in America.

Yet, robotics companies employ a minuscule percentage of the Pittsburgh work force. Aside from RedZone, which employs 26 people, and McKessonHBOC, which employs 450, the employees from the handful of other companies the Journal story named could barely fill a softball team.

More than 80 percent of CMU's robotics graduates leave the region for robotics-related jobs elsewhere, frustrated by the lack of opportunities and the pace of Pittsburgh robotics work, much of which is commissioned by lumbering bureaucracies. Already, two CMU scientists have left their government-sponsored research lab to form a private company because they feared the technology would pass them by.

In contrast, the fast-moving Internet is flush with venture capital and jobs for promising tech heads. David White, a rising star at RedZone, left the company after nine years and is seeking a job in e-commerce. Even the founders of RoboCity, a nonprofit founded to promote companies in Pittsburgh, have left robotics for dot.com fortunes.

Some fear that the Journal's spotlight on Pittsburgh robotics may have outed an industry before it has arrived. And they have good reason to be anxious -- they've seen it before.

 
   
Personal robots


Not all Pittsburgh robots are industrial giants. Several times a day, Cye vacuums the carpet outside Henry Thorne's North Side office.

Cye is the sole product of Probotics Inc., a 10-employee company Thorne founded when he returned to Pittsburgh from New York City. Thorne, a CMU graduate, was wooed back with a $100,000 Ben Franklin grant to build the first Cye prototype.

Probotics has yet to turn a profit, despite selling 270 Cyes at around $700 apiece last year.

Cye has a detachable cart that can make deliveries around the house, thanks to a computerized map for navigating. That feature will make Cye attractive to the disabled, Thorne said, adding: "I think a Pittsburgh robot should actually be something that works."

Mobot Inc., a RedZone spinoff, markets its robotic tour guides to museums. Mobot's customers include the Carnegie Science Center, the Sen. John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Mobot received a $100,000 grant from Ben Franklin's successor, Innovation Works, to improve its products.

-- Rona Kobell

 
 

Nuclear opportunities

Robots brought hope to Pittsburgh just as Big Steel was leaving.

In 1979, when Raj Reddy founded CMU's Robotics Institute with a $5 million grant from Westinghouse Electric Corp., some scientists predicted robots would revolutionize the workplace. Initially, students at the institute worked on Westinghouse projects. Today, the institute is part of CMU's computer science school, and its 53 faculty and 67 doctoral students work on government projects.

Scientists were intrigued by the thought of robots going where humans feared to tread, and the Atomic Age seemed to provide the ideal testing ground. If engineers could program robots to tackle nuclear disasters, they just might change the world.

After the Three Mile Island reactor suffered a partial meltdown in 1979, CMU professor Red Whittaker lobbied for years for a contract for robots to clean up the power plant near Harrisburg. Whittaker and graduate student Jim Osborn built three.

Two were deployed in 1985 to measure radioactivity levels. But officials decided to seal the damaged reactor before the third ever went inside to do the cleanup.

That robot, Workhorse, cost $2 million to build. Three Mile Island sold it back to CMU for $1.

The Workhorse story was hardly a tragedy. CMU earned worldwide acclaim for its technology, and it got its robot back to conduct more research. But it taught Osborn, now assistant director of CMU's field robotics center, a sobering lesson about bureaucracies: They'll pay you to build the robot, but they may never use it.

Employees at RedZone learned that the hard way. The seed for the company was planted in 1986 after a reactor in Chernobyl exploded. Soviet officials, aware of CMU's Three Mile Island work, turned to Whittaker for help.

Whittaker and Todd Simonds, then managing director of the Robotics Institute, formed RedZone in 1987 to address Chernobyl and other cleanups. Simonds left the university to run the company, named for the most dangerous area in a nuclear spill. RedZone's experts built the Pioneer robot to clean up Chernobyl in just nine months -- but only after years of discussions with the U.S. Department of Energy and Ukrainian officials.

Today, Pioneer sits idle in the Ukraine, still waiting to analyze the parking-garage-sized slab of concrete that entombs the nuclear reactor damaged 14 years ago by the explosion and fire.

That rankles Osborn, who remembers the frustrations of Workhorse. "We've made some promises, or at least we've raised some expectations," he said. "If they're not met at some point in time, we'll be accused of being false prophets."

Simonds, though, calls Pioneer a success: The robot was built, paid for and shipped. He's confident it will be deployed soon. He's not as optimistic about some of RedZone's other prospects.

Consider the Hanford Reservation in Richland, Wash., once the site of a plutonium production complex that was part of the Manhattan Project. Now, 177 underground tanks are filled with chemical and radioactive waste. The Department of Energy, which accounts for 80 percent of RedZone's business, has been mulling a cleanup for years.

As business development director at RedZone, CMU grad David White traveled to Hanford so often that hotel workers began recognizing him. He went to sell the government on Houdini, a tank-cleaning robot that Whittaker sketched out on the back of a cocktail napkin in 1992 while flying back from Hanford.

Eight years later, the government is using Houdini -- but not at Hanford. The robot is cleaning tanks at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. "The Department of Energy led everyone to believe they were going to spend a lot of money on cleanup [at Hanford]," White said. "They have spent a lot of money. But the cleanup hasn't gotten done."

Hanford underscores one of the hazards of the robot business. "You can drag your feet [on cleanup] forever and ever," said RedZone chairman Simonds.

David White, now 35, is tired of waiting. He quit robotics in November after nine years at RedZone and its spinoff, Mobot Inc. He is now seeking an Internet job. His only regret: that he didn't leave sooner.

"I remember saying to myself at RedZone, 'Smart people should be able to find something more fun to do with their lives.'... You feel like good years are not being put to good use."

Simonds understands that. "Dave would have been delighted to stay in robotics. But you can't force it. It's not happening fast enough."

A political football

 
When Dennis McGuire, left, and Kevin Grady founded UltraStrip Systems 10 years ago, they dreamed of building a hydraulic robot to strip paint from ships. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette) 

White is not the first robot scientist to pine for the Internet's pace. R. Craig Coulter, 31, founded RoboCity in October 1997 as a nonprofit to convert CMU's robot expertise into commercial companies. Coulter has since left robotics to start an Internet company.

Coulter was a robotics Ph.D. at the National Robotics Engineering Consortium (NREC) when he and a few others, including former NREC director David Pahnos, conceived RoboCity. They envisioned a technology park to incubate companies and a nonprofit to coordinate funding and personnel.

They were not the only ones pinning their hopes on robots. The NREC had formed a year earlier as a partnership between CMU and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Its mission to commercialize robotics was similar to RoboCity's -- and it had NASA's money, about $3.5 million a year.

Pittsburgh politicians also fixated on robotics. In 1998, the Heinz Endowments helped fund the Pittsburgh Robotics Initiative, a group charged with studying the viability of robotics in Pittsburgh. Led by former Mellon Stuart CEO David Figgins, the Initiative's studies fingered commercialization as a key to success.

Today, the mention of RoboCity is enough to clear a room. Some of the politicians and development groups asked to support the idea thought it too broad, while others said they didn't understand it. And some robot scientists were cool to the idea because they disliked Pahnos.

Pahnos, now an executive at a computer hardware company in Southern California, still is not sure why the RoboCity discussions turned personal.

"People heavily questioned the motivation. I always found that really, really unfortunate," Pahnos said. "I kept saying, 'It's not about me. It's about opportunity.' "

Somehow, RoboCity got out of the hands of the entrepreneurs who envisioned it and "got lost in the nexus of economic development organizations, CMU and NASA," Pahnos said. It further convinced him that moving ideas forward in Pittsburgh was "like walking through glue."

Coulter, an Armstrong County farmer who never cared for politics, tried to stay out of the RoboCity debates. He focused instead on the results of the NREC's earliest projects and soon realized that CMU's robotics technology had zoomed ahead of what customers were ready to purchase and use.

Believing his goal of building profitable robotics companies was years away, Coulter left the NREC to form his Internet company, Tpresence Inc.

Pahnos has no plans to resume robotics work. But Coulter will be back -- in eight years.

"Robotics is going to hit, and it's going to hit huge," Coulter said. "But it's a decade away."

The speed quandary

 
   
R O B O T

Robot derives from the Czech robota, meaning work, and traces its origins to a 1921 play by Karel Capek in which machines created to do the work of humans eventually rebelled against their creators.

 
 

Just why robotics hasn't taken off as fast as the Internet is no mystery. Internet companies can zoom from two programmers plugging away on a basement PC to a wildly successful initial public offering in a matter of months.

Building robots takes time. You need electronic engineers to design circuit boards, mechanical engineers to assemble arms and legs, hydraulic engineers to power the robot, sensory engineers for navigation tools and programmers to equip the robot with intelligence to interpret commands.

"There are a few hundred people in the country who have the vision and capability [to do it all]," said CMU's Osborn. Though he says CMU boasts some of them, he concedes that the university "is just not cranking them out very fast."

Robotics components are expensive, and assembling them requires warehouse space. RedZone builds its robots in the former Westinghouse Air Brake factory; NREC's workspace used to be a foundry.

So the cycle continues -- slow progress deters venture capitalists, who want quick returns. The dearth of funding further slows development. That leaves robot companies to seek funding from the old standbys -- the bureaucracies that move even more slowly than they do.

One well-known Boston company, Denning Mobile Robotics, found-ered in the 1980s because of funding difficulties and trouble selling its Zamboni-like robot to clean floors. Allen Branch, who briefly studied at CMU, brought Denning to Pittsburgh in hopes of reviving it. By 1998, he'd left the country, and Denning was forced into bankruptcy.

Those familiar with Denning said the company failed because of poor management and a lack of vision. The entrepreneurs at CMU are making sure their spinoffs avoid those problems.

While studying at the school, Sean McDonald conceived of a robotic system guided by bar codes that would dispense drugs at hospitals. McKessonHBOC, the largest drug distributor in the United States, liked the idea so much it bought McDonald's company, Automated Health Care, four years ago.

Automated, based on Herrs Island, now employs 450 people and has branched into automated drug cabinets. It expects to reach $80 million in sales for the year ending March 31.

The future of robotics looks a lot like the products Automated makes. It is not the R2D2s of our imagination that hold the most promise for the industry. It is robotic eyes, arms and voices applied to specialized tasks.

At least that is the assessment of Takeo Kanade, director of CMU's Robotics Institute.

He co-founded K2T as a robotics company. While trying to develop computerized eyes for automated vehicles, the company created a three-dimensional camera to measure the area around it. Kanade and partner Eric Hoffman renamed the company Quantapoint, and now use the camera and special software to map floor plans for engineers and architects renovating existing buildings.

Kanade also points to the success of AssistWare, created by former CMU professors Dean Pomerleau and Todd Jochem last year. AssistWare makes the Drowsy Driver Warning System, a radar-detector-sized sensor that sounds an alarm when a driver nods off. So far, the company has sold 30 prototypes at $25,000 apiece to General Motors and other companies.

Though Jochem and Pomerleau developed their system with Department of Transportation funding while at CMU, they left the university because trucking companies wanted the system faster than the academic timetable would allow. In three months, the pair developed a prototype -- "in government research, that's unheard of," Jochem said.

Now, Wexford-based AssistWare is seeking a manufacturing partner to mass-produce the drowsy-driver system.

"We could have stayed at CMU; we could have gotten paid," Jochem said, "but there was no way we could put our technology in action."

Robots that work

Roboticists say that's why they got into the business -- to see technology solve problems. And that's why the off-the-charts smart scientists at NASA, CMU and RedZone are salivating over the arrival of Dennis McGuire and his 12-employee ship-stripping company. They have finally found a customer as committed to the cause as they have been.

It was 10 years ago that McGuire stood under the hull of a ship in a pool of grit from sandblasted paint. At that time, it took close to 100 workers using high-powered guns to clean the corroded paint from the bottom of a ship. Cleaning was necessary to maintain a ship's performance. Yet the waste from the process polluted Florida's environment.

McGuire was determined to strip ships with high-pressure water. He and his business partner mortgaged their homes to buy UltraStrip's first $50,000 pump. They clung to the idea that a robot would one day strip a ship.

Two years ago, McGuire received a patent on his system. He hired a firm to build the robot but soon realized it needed some improvements. He hopped on the Internet and found the NREC, liked its mission, and hauled his system to Pittsburgh.

"They're not a laboratory kind of college thing doing whiz-bang stuff," McGuire said. "They only want to do products that are going to be viable at the end of the day."

UltraStrip has paid the NREC $1 million for its work. It will pay RedZone millions more to manufacture the M-2000, which sells for $2.5 million.

And, as a bonus, the naysayers from the Navy will be in Pittsburgh in April to check out the system.

So McGuire's M-2000 takes its place in the NREC workshop alongside other successes: a machine that has mined 3 million tons of coal, a robotic alfalfa harvester and Workhorse, the Three Mile Island veteran that gave birth to them all.

It is an all-star lineup of the industry's potential -- and a reminder of the danger when promising advances are hyped as proven successes.

Hope, however, is still a powerful motivator.

A group of businessmen -- including White and Simonds -- have launched www.roboburgh.com.

Someday, its founders say, the site will have links to local robotics companies.

It will answer complex questions, pair up manufacturers and scientists, explain what robotics is and why it's thriving in Western Pennsylvania.

But for now, the site includes only a seven-paragraph Post-Gazette story referencing the Journal's clever nickname. Yet in bold, certain type, it declares: "The future of robotics starts here. Soon."



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