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New Roboworld bot holds court at Carnegie Science Center

| Friday, March 3, 2017, 7:33 p.m.

Even our robots are being replaced by robots.

After 20 years of nailing free throws and sinking behind-the-back 22-footers, Hoops, the basketball-shooting robotic arm holding court in the Roboworld exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center, has retired.

Hoops was replaced this week with a new robot being taught to make the same shots its predecessor did.

“It's really like teaching a newborn how to shoot a basketball,” said Doug DeHaven, a robotics technician at the Carnegie Science Center programing the new robot.

The new robot doesn't have a name yet. And it's still working on its form. DeHaven is making tweaks to the starting and ending points of the path of the robot's arm and to the flick of the robot's “wrist.” By noon Friday, DeHaven, with sweat beading on his brow from shagging missed shots, had spent nearly 60 hours with the robot. He worked past midnight the night before trying to lock in the robot's shot.

“Oh. He missed it,” said Arya Ghildyal as she watched the robot shank a shot off the rim.

Friday was Arya's birthday. She turned 3 but didn't think she could beat the new robot.

“I'm not a grown-up yet,” she said.

DeHaven aims to have the new robot's shot percentage in the high 90s. The new robot is twice as fast as Hoops, accurate to within 0.001mm and has a longer arm, said Dennis Bateman, senior director of exhibitions and experience at the Carnegie Science Center. It weighs 2,456 pounds and sits on two 1,000-pound steel plates.

Like Hoops, the new robot was designed for industrial purposes, such as work on an assembly line. It was made by the Italian firm Comau. It typically costs about $75,000, but Comau gave the Carnegie Science Center “a handsome discount,” Bateman said.

A Comau representative is set to visit next week to help DeHaven dial in the robot. Bateman can't wait to see what they think of its new gig.

“It will be interesting to see their reaction to what we've done with their robot,” Bateman said.

Hoops, known as Vlad to Carnegie Science Center staff because of its tendency to crush basketballs — a sound like you've never heard, DeHaven said — arrived at the center in 1997. Before Hoops developed its can't-miss jumper — the 3-ton robot didn't actually jump — the robot welded automobiles in a factory.

The Carnegie Science Center took Hoops on the road as part of a traveling robotics show. Hoops did its thing across the United States, including Hawaii, and throughout Canada.

In its prime, Hoops made 98 percent of its shots. Steve Nash, the NBA player with the highest free-throw shooting percent, shot 90.43 percent, according to basketballreference.com .

In 2008, the Carnegie Science Center opened Roboworld and installed Hoops, its most popular attraction, Bateman said. You could challenge Hoops, but you lost every time.

Only changes in the air pressure, humidity or the friction of new basketballs could throw Hoops off its game.

As Hoops aged, its accuracy sagged. Last month, Hoops shot about 85 to 87 percent, still better than most humans but shoddy in the world of robots. Hoops was old. The company no longer made parts for it. It ran off floppy disks, the big ones, and DeHaven had to reload the robot's programing every time the power cut out.

On Friday, Hoops sat in the cold and snow, near the Carnegie Science Center's dumpsters and next to a pair of discarded water heaters. After 61,000 hours of game time, Hoops will be recycled.

But a part of Hoops will live on. The silver attachment to the new robotic arm, the robot's hand so to speak, is the original hand Hoops used.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach Aupperlee at aaupperlee@tribweb.com or 412-336-8448.

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Robot Technician for the Carnegie Science Center, Doug DeHaven dials in a new, basket-shooting robot at the Science Center, Friday, March 3, 2017. The robot replaces 'Hoops,' who had been at the Science Center since 1997.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Robot Technician for the Carnegie Science Center, Doug DeHaven places a basketball in the hand of a new, basket-shooting robot at the Science Center, Friday, March 3, 2017. The robot replaces 'Hoops,' who had been at the Science Center since 1997.
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